|(Credit: Taylor Sammarco/Texas Stars)|
Stephen Johns's return to professional hockey was as advertised. Showing no signs of any rust despite 22 months without a competitive game, the defender on conditioning assignment from Dallas was an unbelievable in every aspect of the game, tallying a goal and three assists. He scored and cleared out Marlies in the defensive zone with equal aplomb and helped Texas to a 5-3 comeback win.
"Every time he was on the ice, he made a difference," said coach Neil Graham postgame. Landon Bow added, "From the moment, he stepped on the ice he didn't belong here."
Johns played on the power play, penalty kill and logged more than twenty minutes on the evening paired mostly with captain Dillon Heatherington. The Stars dressed seven defenders just in case but it was clear from the first shift that they didn't need the extra body.
"He just killed it out there," continued Bow. "He couldn't make a bad play. He was throwing guys around. He was shooting the puck hard. You couldn't tell it that guy's had any time off at all. To see him finally come back and put up a performance like that, it means a lot. I think everybody in that room is over the moon for that guy."
|Stephen Johns's second period goal|
As to the story of the scoring, the power play was deadly for Texas, going 2 for 3. While they would eventually yield on the power play, Texas held the Marlies without a goal through the first forty, giving them a huge chance to win in the third.
It didn't take long for Texas to punch in their first. On the power play, Tanner Kero scored his second of the year at the net. Johns' second assist wasn't revelatory, but it was his first point in any game since March 23rd, 2018. After last night's cancellation, Texas was happy with their start.
"There was a lot going on last night. For us to reset here today, we want to come out the right way. We wanted to make sure we struck first, and we did that."
Persistent pest Rich Clune knotted things up before the end of the first, sending the teams to a 1-1 tie at the intermission. The second period was a dangerous one for Texas as they faced four penalty kills and halted each. Late in the frame, the tide turned the other way, and Johns found the net. He caught a failed clearing attempt right at the blue line and blasted one past a stunned Kasimir Kaskisuo for the 2-1 score. It was like 22 months of frustration with not being able to play had been funneled directly into that puck.
"Johns has a very good shot, a very good one timer," said Graham. "For us, we used it as a spark for our power play. Obviously, he scored the one goal, but he also created another one by getting a good shot low and hard to the net."
Toronto surged back into the game with a pair of goals on the power play, both by Nic Petan, setting Texas on its heels with 9:45 left in the contest. Set up by a Johns hit in the defensive zone, Jason Robertson broke in alone two minutes later to tie the game.
Johns again generated the go-ahead goal with a hard shot from the right point. Tye Felhaber cleaned up the rebound for his second of the year. The building was on fire and it seemed like the Marlies were basically done, despite the three minutes still remaining on the clock.
The Notre Dame alum would help ice the game, earning a primary assist on Michael Mersch's empty net goal with a minute left. Johns finished the contest with a goal, three assists, a plus-3 rating and seven shots on net. He'll likely play on Wednesday, but it doesn't really seem like he has anything left to prove here in the AHL.
"He's great, and it goes beyond that," said captain Dillon Heatherington. "Off the ice, he's special person. When I first got called up to Dallas a couple years ago, he was in the dressing room, and he helped me out a bunch there. It's just great seeing him back playing again and with a smile on his face. It was something special."
With the win, Texas returns to .500 for the first time since October 25th.
Injuries, scratches, and notes:
MacKay, Cuglietta, Scarlett, Gleason (scratch)
Caamano, Mascherin (injury)
Tonight’s attendance was 6,128.
AHL Gamesheet - Texas v. Toronto - January 11 2020