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 rally to win 2020 Winter Classic, leave Predators in peril
The Dallas Stars refused to let a terrible 1-7-1 start ruin their season, and didn’t allow a big early mistake to derail them against the Nashville Predators. After falling behind 2-0 thanks largely to Corey Perry’s ejection, the Stars rallied to beat the Predators 4-2 to win the 2020 Winter Classic.
Plenty of bad blood between Stars and Predators
Perry played a big part in the Dallas Stars falling into a 2-0 hole to begin the game. Mere minutes into the contest, Perry picked Ryan Ellis‘ head with an elbow, getting thrown from the contest.
The Stars made the situation worse by adding a delay of game penalty, and the Predators eventually took advantage with those two goals. That start left most of the crowd of 85,630 — the second largest audience for any NHL game behind only the 2014 Winter Classic at Michigan Stadium — muttering, if not booing. The Stars made sure that the non-Predators contingent ended up going home happy.
Happy is not the right way to describe the mood on the ice, though.
Perry elbowing Ellis was far from the only violent moment during this outdoor game. Few were safe during the first NHL game of 2020. Notice that even aggressors were wounded, as Radek Faksa showed when he was shaken up following a questionable hit on Mattias Ekholm:
Stars win third in a row
The Stars fired Jim Montgomery not that long ago, throwing Rick Bowness right into the deep end. Bowness inspired early critics, and probably will absorb more gripes as the season goes along. But maybe this Stars team will be able to rally around their unexpected veteran coach more often than not?
Dallas improved to 23-14-4, winning their third game in a row. The Stars put themselves in a decent position to possibly get the Central Division’s third or even second seed with this run.
Instead of caving after Perry put the Stars in a bad position, they rallied. Starting with a Blake Comeau goal with a little bit more than a minute remaining in the second, Dallas rattled off four unanswered goals. After that Comeau goal, the Stars scored their three third-period goals in a 6:14 burst. One cannot help but wonder if the Stars should be more aggressive, more often.
This marks the Stars’ league-leading seventh win after trailing following a second period.
Predators in peril
When the Predators were nursing a 2-0 lead, it seemed like the headlines would be about this being a costly win. Then the Stars erased even that silver lining.
Ryan Ellis left Wednesday’s game and did not return. For a team that needs to make every game count, losing a key defenseman ranks as a brutal blow, especially if Ellis misses extended time.
The Predators saw their losing streak fatten to three games, and now stare down the barrel of a stretch where five of their next six games are on the road. For a team that’s wobbling, could that stretch push them off of a cliff?
Both teams, especially the Predators, really wanted these two points. The Stars, too, face a tough stretch soon (five of six on the road, beginning on Jan. 8). While the Predators have wilted under pressure — including this afternoon — the Stars keep showing they can roll with all sorts of punches.
Amid the uncertainty, they still had a game to prepare for against the New Jersey Devils, and once the puck dropped with Rick Bowness taking charge behind the bench, they went back to playing good hockey. The result? A 2-0 shutout, with Radek Faksa starting the scoring off early 102 seconds into the game.
If the makeup of the Stars roster had been on the younger side, maybe the shocking news would have had a bigger effect on the game, but a veteran group knows how to handle such potential distractions.
“We have an experienced group in here — a lot of guys that have been around a long time,” said goaltender Ben Bishop, who stopped 26 shots for his 32nd career shutout. “In sports, unfortunately, people lose their jobs, and people get traded. You don’t have much time to react, and you can’t sit there and soak it all in. You have to get back to work, and I thought the guys did a great job.
“We did a pretty good job today of sticking to our game-day routine and having our meetings, coming to the rink, and focusing on the New Jersey Devils. I thought we did a good job of sticking with our game plan and taking it to them.”
It wasn’t just an experienced lineup that helped, it was the voice behind the bench. Bowness has been a head coach or an assistant coach in the NHL for over 2,000 games, the most in league history. He’s experienced and has a track record that follows him. Bishop and Bowness were in Tampa together for two seasons and has had nothing but positive things to say about him.
You can see after the game how much the team wanted to win Tuesday night and begin the process of moving forward.
Bowness’ last NHL head coaching job was in 2003-04 when he led the Phoenix Coyotes for 20 games before he was dismissed. He certainly didn’t envision becoming a head coach again in this fashion, but you’ve got to take advantage of every potential opportunity that comes your way.
“Even at my age, as a coach in this League, you want to take another shot at it,” Bowness said Tuesday morning. “It means a lot to me to have another kick at it, for sure. I mean, there are a lot more years behind me than ahead of me, and I get all that.
“But we’re just going to enjoy every day and make the most of it. I’m fortunate to be given this opportunity, I’m fortunate that ownership and management have faith in me to take this offer, faith in the coaching staff, that we don’t have to make a lot of changes. So, we’re very, very fortunate with that.”
About a week ago, PHT’s Adam Gretz chronicled the revitalization of Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, the Stars’ biggest stars (don’t mix up your capitalization there, gang). In particular, the strong work from Benn and Seguin stood out after yet another browbeating from management, in the latest case being head coach Jim Montgomery — who later apologized for throwing the two under the bus.
The numbers back up hot play from Benn and Seguin lately, but this video of Benn rampaging against Mark Scheifele and the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday presents the argument in a more violent and entertaining fashion:
Yet, in a team sport like hockey, you usually don’t go on a five-game winning streak without other players stepping up, and that’s especially true when you zoom out to Dallas’ 12-1-1 run since Oct. 19.
Truly, it’s remarkable to compare the Stars’ 2019-20 season through Oct. 18 (when they went 1-7-1) and this blistering run that’s improved the Stars to an overall record of 13-8-2.
Let’s take a look at the other forces driving Dallas’ success. Feel free to play the Stars’ cheesy and/or great Pantera-powered goal song while reading this post.
(Of course it’s called “Puck off.”)
As you’d probably expect, the goalies have been lights out
Last season, the Stars survived (and even thrived) on a steady diet of “Benn + Seguin + all-world goaltending from Ben Bishop and Anton Khudobin.” You might not be surprised to learn that they’ve all been key catalysts for this impressive run.
Bishop sports an outstanding .942 save percentage during the hot streak, and Khudobin is right behind him with a .941 in that span.
When the Stars handed Joe Pavelski a deal with a $7.5 million AAV, they likely expected the veteran forward to help them find scoring beyond Benn and Seguin — even if Pavelski landed with those two, and merely opened up easier matchups for the likes of Alexander Radulov.
After a bumpy start, Pavelski and others have provided offense beyond Dallas’ dynamic duo. Pavelski matches Benn’s 10 points during the past 14 games, and they’re both tied with seemingly defense-only forward Radek Faksa.
(If Faksa turns into the Stars’ answer to Sean Couturier — a defensive forward whose considerable scoring touch was eventually unlocked — then watch out.)
Right behind Seguin’s 15 points in 14 games is a player who basically deserves at least his own paragraph: Miro Heiskanen. The 20-year-old defenseman has 12 points in his past 14 games, and while he’s soaking up puck luck that probably isn’t sustainable, the bottom line is that he’s a star. He continues to average the ice time of a workhorse defenseman, and may not have to wait long for Norris hype. (It’s promising, too, in its own way that the Stars are thriving while John Klingberg‘s had a tough go of things.)
With Corey Perry gearing up (nine points during the 14-game run) and Roope Hintz back in the mix after dealing with injury issues, it sure seems like Dallas’ attack is more varied than last season. That could be scary, considering how tough they were to contain as Hintz gave them a bit more variety once he really broke through during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Expecting long-term world-class goaltending is dangerous, especially with older goalies like Bishop (33) and Khudobin (also 33).
But the promising thing is that there are a lot of positives to take away from Montgomery’s system. During this hot streak, the Stars haven’t just been riding some positive bounces, they’ve also generated the third-best differential for high-danger scoring chances during that time, and look good to great by just about all of Natural Stat Trick’s even-strength measures.
Yes, the Stars are playing a bit over their heads … but maybe not so far that this isn’t a sign that they’re here to stay?
The truth about the Stars is likely somewhere in between their red-hot 14-game streak and the rough nine-game start to 2019-20. It will be fascinating to see where they end up once 2019-20 shakes out, and considering the mix of youth and veterans on this team, what kind of ceiling this group might have.
1. Matthew Tkachuk, Calgary Flames. A little less than a week ago Tkachuk helped the Flames complete a pretty improbable comeback in Nashville by scoring the game-tying goal late in the third period and then winning it in overtime. He had a similar night on Tuesday, helping the Flames erase a two-goal deficit late in the third period against Arizona. He scored his eighth goal of the season to bring the Flames to within one, a goal that was followed by Mark Giordano‘s game-tying goal less than a minute later. That set the stage for Tkachuk to score another overtime winner. Opponents may hate him, but he is turning into a star.
2. Radek Faksa, Dallas Stars. Don’t look now, but the Stars are starting to put things together. After winning just one of their first nine games — and looking ugly in the process — the Stars have now won seven of their past eight games and are back to .500 on the season. They continued that surge on Tuesday with a 4-1 win over a banged up Colorado Avalanche team. Faksa was the offensive star of the night with a pair of goals.
3. Reilly Smith, Vegas Golden Knights. Smith provided all the offense for the Golden Knights in a 2-1 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, scoring both goals to give him nine on the season. It helped the Golden Knights snap out of a mini funk that had seem them lose four of their previous six games.
Other notable performances from Tuesday
Victor Mete scored two goals for the Montreal Canadiens in their win over the Boston Bruins. He scored one goal in his career entering the night. Read more about it here.
Carter Hart needed a big performance and he gave the Philadelphia Flyers one on Tuesday, stopping 33 out of 34 shots in a 4-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes.
Patrick Marleau has scored three goals since re-joining the San Jose Sharks. All three of them have come against the Chicago Blackhawks. He scored another one on Tuesday in their dominant 4-2 win. Read all about it here.
Nico Hischier scored his second goal of the season and Nikita Gusev tallied a goal in the shootout to help the New Jersey Devils get a much-needed win against the Winnipeg Jets.
Highlights of the Night
The Islanders won their 10th game in a row on Tuesday and the highlight of the night had to be Cole Bardreau scoring his first career goal on a penalty shot. Read all about the Islanders’ win here.
This could qualify as a both a blooper and a highlight, but we are going to focus on the highlight here as the Blues continue their great play by finishing a 3-on-0 rush in overtime, made possible by two Canucks players colliding at the other end of the ice.
One of the best plays in hockey is the perfectly time breakaway out of the penalty box. Mats Zuccarello is the lucky recipient of it here in the Minnesota Wild’s 4-2 win over the Anaheim Ducks.
Blooper of the Night
Fortunately for John Tavares and the Toronto Maple Leafs they were able to beat the Los Angeles Kings, but this shot in his first game back was not what he wanted.
New York Islanders 4, Ottawa Senators 1
Philadelphia Flyers 4, Carolina Hurricanes 1
Vegas Golden Knights 2, Columbus Blue Jackets 1
Montreal Canadiens 5, Boston Bruins 4
Toronto Maple Leafs 3, Los Angeles Kings 1
New Jersey Devils 2, Winnipeg Jets 1
Dallas Stars 4, Colorado Avalanche 1
Calgary Flames 4, Arizona Coyotes 3 (OT)
St. Louis Blues 2, Vancouver Canucks 1 (OT)
Minnesota Wild 4, Anaheim Ducks 2
San Jose Sharks 4, Chicago Blackhawks 2