Miro Heiskanen

Stars’ Stephen Johns activated after missing almost 22 months

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ST. PAUL, Minn. — Stephen Johns played in his first game in almost 22 months when the Dallas Stars visited Minnesota on Saturday night.

Forward Radek Faksa was placed on injured reserve to make room for Johns on the active roster.

Johns has been out since late in the 2017-18 season because of post-traumatic headaches. The Stars have said the condition isn’t related to concussions.

The 27-year-old defenseman hasn’t played since March 29, 2018, at the Wild. It was the last of a career-high 75 games in his third NHL season. Johns missed the last five games that year before sitting out all of last season as headaches persisted.

He played two games on a conditioning assignment with the Texas Stars of the AHL before rejoining Dallas on Thursday.

The return of Johns could coincide with the Stars’ first game without defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The 20-year-old standout left Thursday’s loss to Buffalo with an upper-body injury.

Johns made his debut for Dallas late in the 2014-15 season and played in all 13 of the team’s playoff games as a rookie. He has 13 goals, 15 assists and 306 blocked shots in 150 career regular-season games.

Stars can’t afford to be without Heiskanen for too long

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Thursday night wasn’t good for the Dallas Stars. Not only did they lose to the Buffalo Sabres, they also watched as defenseman Miro Heiskanen suffered an upper-body injury during the game.

He’s considered day-to-day for now.

The 20-year-old was hurt after Sabres forward Rasmus Asplund made contact with his head as Heiskanen was falling down to the ice. He then went to the Stars locker room and never returned to the game.

“We all know what he does for us,” Stars interim head coach Rick Bowness said, per the Dallas News. “Our breakouts are a lot better, he joins the rush and he’s a danger on that offensive blue line. Take him out of there, and that’s a big hole. There’s just no getting around that. Injuries happen, and got to keep playing. Got to overcome them.”

Here’s how he got hurt:

It’s easy to see why Heiskanen wouldn’t be pleased with Asplund in the moment, but the contact with the head only occurs because Heiskanen falls forward right before his opponent gets to the corner. But Sweden on Finland crime will never go over well.

The Stars don’t know how long their young defender will be out, but, as Bowness mentioned, it’s clear that they need him back in their lineup quickly. He’s up to seven goals and 24 points in 47 games this season and he averages just over 24 minutes of ice time per game.

The fancy stats also show that when Heiskanen is on the ice the Stars control 55.31 percent of the XGF and 54.19% of the high-danger chances (stats via Natural Stat Trick).

He’s formed a nice duo with Jamie Oleksiak, as they’ve played 384 minutes together at five-on-five this season. If he’s out for an extended period of time, finding someone to slide into that spot won’t be easy.

“He’s an elite player on this team, so anytime you lose one of those guys, it doesn’t matter who it is, it’s going to hurt,” teammate Ben Bishop said after the loss to Buffalo. “Obviously, we’re down a goal there, we rely on those guys.”

On a more positive note, it sounds like they’ll be getting Stephen Johns back after he missed 22 months with post-traumatic headaches. He’ll have to be eased back into the lineup, but he could help fill the void left by Heiskanen. But they’ll likely have to do that as a committee.

The Stars currently find themselves in third place in the Central Division with a record of 27-16-4. They’re tied for second with Colorado, but the Avs hold the tie-breaker (they have more regulation/overtime victories). The Winnipeg Jets, who are currently fourth in the division and just outside the playoff picture, are four points behind Dallas.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Stars’ Stephen Johns nears return after 22-month absence

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DALLAS — Star defenseman Stephen Johns appears on track to return to Dallas’ lineup for the first time in 22 months on Saturday.

Johns, who returned from a conditioning assignment with Texas of the AHL, was not active for Thursday’s game but will travel with the Stars for their game at Minnesota.

He has not played in an NHL game since March 29, 2018, because of post-traumatic headaches.

”There’s a good chance he’ll play Saturday,” interim coach Rick Bowness said, ”so we’ll evaluate that (Friday) and Saturday morning.”

In two games for Texas, Johns had a goal and three assists.

The Stars could be in need of a defenseman after Miro Heiskanen didn’t play the second half of Thursday’s 4-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres because of an upper-body injury. Bowness said Heiskanen’s availability is considered day to day.

Outdoor hockey in Texas? Sure thang, and was a hoot to boot

DALLAS — Ryan Clare chewed on a turkey leg as he milled about the Texas state fairgrounds hours before another major sporting event inside historic Cotton Bowl Stadium.

No, this wasn’t the Texas-Oklahoma football game, always held in October during the fair. Clare has never been to the annual Red River rivalry, but the Dallas resident has been a fan of hockey and the Stars for more than 20 years.

Getting tickets to the NHL’s Winter Classic for Dallas’ 4-2 win over Nashville was a no-brainer for Clare, and probably many others among the 85,630 who filled a venue that used to be famous for college football on New Year’s Day.

”This is kind of a once-in-a-lifetime event and everything,” said Clare, the bottom of the Dallas resident’s green No. 4 Miro Heiskanen jersey covering the top of his black kilt. ”When are you going to something like this in Texas ever again?”

Yes, outdoor hockey in Texas was as much the spectacle as that phrase sounds, with racing pigs just outside the rink on the stadium floor, and horses spooked by fireworks during ”The Star-Spangled Banner.”

At one end of the stadium, line dancers stepped to the beat of live country music in front of a stage that wasn’t far from a mechanical bull.

”I understand Twitter is going nuts in a good way about the pig races,” Commissioner Gary Bettman said. ”We tried to blend Texas and hockey. Each year we try and learn something and do it a little bit better.”

The midway on the fairgrounds was filled with thousands of fans several hours before the game, some riding the giant Ferris wheel just southwest of the stadium and others on the swinging pirate ship or the haunted house ride.

Some waited in line at least an hour for the other headliner alongside a turkey leg at the State Fair of Texas every fall: a corn dog. ”It was worth it,” one said. There were so many lines, some didn’t know where one started and the other ended.

Others almost ended up on the sky tram that crisscrosses the fairgrounds, when all they wanted to do was get in the stadium.

”We didn’t know,” said Samantha Williams, a Nashville season ticket-holder visiting Dallas for the first time.

There was some impatience in a huge cluster of fans outside the main entrance to the Cotton Bowl about an hour and a half before the start, a standstill bad enough for some to think it was the only way into the stadium when there were actually plenty of other entrances.

”It’s been sensational,” Bettman said. ”The only complaints that we’ve been getting is that it’s been too crowded. And in this business, you’ll take that.”

Bettman said the weather was perfect in every way: a temperature in the mid-50s with overcast skies that blocked the sun to prevent glare without bringing rain, which would have been an even bigger problem for the ice.

The Predators took a 2-0 lead early in the first period before the Stars thrilled the huge crowd with four goals in less than eight minutes in the second and third periods.

”We’re very fortunate to be a part of it, hockey down in Texas and a couple of Southern teams, and fill the building the way we did,” Nashville coach Peter Laviolette said. ”It was an incredible day. You want the score to go in a different direction if you’re part of the game. But the game overall, the ice, the atmosphere, it was excellent.”

The biggest difference from the Texas-OU spectacle was the fairgrounds emptying out once the game started. When the Longhorns and Sooners play, there are still thousands of regular fair-goers to see in the aerial television shots.

Inside, there was a bunch of Dallas green rather than the 50-yard line split of burnt orange and crimson, and a strong contingent of yellow-clad Predators fans.

Among them was Sonya Baird, a lifelong resident of southeast Texas who can’t really explain how she became a Nashville fan. Baird did say she liked the style and energy of Shea Weber, who spent his first 11 seasons with the Predators.

And Baird’s never been to the state fair, so …

”I didn’t know where this place was,” she said. ”It’s pretty cool. I don’t like crowds for some reason. It wasn’t going to keep me away.”

Same with Bryan Granstaff, who came from outside Nashville because his daughter wanted to attend. He wasn’t much of a football fan, and couldn’t say he’d seen a football game from the Cotton Bowl on TV.

”The only thing I keep up with is hockey,” said Granstaff, a Predators fan for about five years. ”Hockey and huntin’.”

Well, at least half of that is quintessential Texas. As for the hockey half, it took quite a step to start 2020.

PHT Face-Off: Perron’s impressive season; Huberdeau scores in fours

Every Monday morning, the PHT Face-Off breaks down different trends and topics around the NHL.

Here’s this week’s stories:

• Predators defense leading the way

The Predators will travel to Dallas to play in this year’s Winter Classic at the Cotton Bowl. When that game starts, Nashville’s top two leading scorers will be defensemen, which is pretty unique. Roman Josi has an incredible 39 points in 38 games this season, while Ryan Ellis is second with 28 points in 38 contests.

As impressive as that production is from the back end, it’s not exactly a glowing endorsement for the work the forwards have put in offensively in 2019-20. In fairness to Filip Forsberg, who is one point behind Ellis, was forced to miss six games with an injury. Had he been in the lineup for those contests, he probably would be second on the team in scoring.

But others like Matt Duchene, Ryan Johansen, Mikael Granlund and Kyle Turris don’t get the benefit of the doubt. If the Preds are going to get back into the playoff picture, they’ll need their top forwards to start scoring at a higher clip.

This Winter Classic matchup isn’t just a fun little regular season game. It’s massive. The Predators are chasing the Stars, who are in the third spot in the Central Division. Dallas is currently six points up on Nashville, so Wednesday’s game will be a four-pointer.

• Stars’ stars not producing as much offense

When you think of the Stars, you think of a team with high-end offensive players like Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov. They also have the next wave of stars coming, as Miro Heiskanen and Roope Hintz have made an impact on the roster, too. But the Stars haven’t found the back of the net as much as you’d think.

Heading into this week, the Stars rank 26th in goals scored, with 107 in 40 games. None of the teams below them in that category are in the playoffs (Los Angeles, Columbus, Anaheim, New Jersey and Detroit). Credit to Dallas, they’ve found a way to keep the puck out of their net, but their best players haven’t put up hose heavy offensive numbers.

Seguin, who leads the team in scoring, has 32 points in 40 games. That puts him on pace to hit the 66-point mark this season. Even though Dallas plays more of a conservative game now, that still seems rather low, especially considering that offense has been up across the board in the NHL over the last two seasons.

In fairness to Seguin, he seems to be picking up the offensive slack lately, as he’s scored five goals in his last six games. He also has nine points in his last eight contests.

• What a year for David Perron

Nobody really expected Perron to put up more points than Seguin in the first half of the season, but that’s exactly what’s happened. Between 2014 and 2018, the Blues forward played for five different organizations. He’s always been a relatively productive offensive player, but he just didn’t last long at any of his stops during that time. Now, he owns a Stanley Cup ring and he’s a point-per-game player in the first half of the season.

Perron has picked up 40 points in 40 games and he doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. The 31-year-old is riding a six-game point streak and he’s racked up 10 points during that stretch. He was nearly a point-per-game player during his one season in Vegas in 2017-18, but he was more of a set up guy that year (he had 16 goals and 50 points in 70 games). This year, he’s already found the back of the net 16 times, so he’s finding different ways to contribute.

His third stint with the Blues may not last as long as his first one did (six years), but it looks like he’s here to stay for now. It’s been an impressive year for this veteran.

Jonathan Huberdeau likes the number four

The Panthers forward probably put together the quietest 90-point season in NHL history last year, when he scored 92 points in 82 games. Somehow, he’s on pace to eclipse that number by a mile this season. The 26-year-old is flying high right now. He’s up to 16 goals and 53 points in 38 games, which puts him on pace to score 35 goals and 115 points.

He’s also been lighting it up over the last two weeks. Last night’s four-point effort against the Montreal Canadiens was his third four-point outing since Dec. 16! As of right now, Huberdeau is sixth in league scoring behind Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak and Nathan MacKinnon. That’s some elite company.

Because he plays in a non-traditional hockey market, he’s probably the most underrated superstar in the NHL. The Panthers also haven’t had much playoff success during his time in Florida, but you’d have to think that better days are ahead with him, Aleksander Barkov and company leading the charge.

What’s coming up this week?
Sergei Bobrovsky goes back to Columbus for the first time since signing with Florida this summer. Tue. Dec. 31, 7 p.m. ET
— McDavid vs. Eichel, Thu. Jan. 2, 7 p.m. ET
— Eastern Conference Final rematch between Washington and Carolina. Fri. Jan. 3, 7:30 p.m. ET

NHL on NBC
— Winter Classic: Predators vs. Stars, Wed. Jan. 1, 2 p.m. ET

NHL on NBCSN
— Devils vs. Islanders, Thu. Jan. 2, 7 p.m. ET
— Blues vs. Avalanche, Thu. Jan. 2, 9:30 p.m. ET
— Red Wings vs. Blackhawks, Sun. Jan. 5, 7:30 p.m. ET
— Predators vs. Ducks, Sun. Jan. 5, 10 p.m. ET

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.