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Johns 'dominating' to begin AHL conditioning assignment

The Stars defenseman steals the show in his first game in nearly 22 months, racking up a goal and three assists for Texas

by Jeff Odom @jeffodom /

CEDAR PARK, Texas -- For the first time in nearly 22 months, Stephen Johns suited up for a hockey game on Saturday night.

That in itself was special.

What the Stars defenseman did in the start of his conditioning assignment with the club's American Hockey League affiliate? That was downright incredible.


[RELATED: What Johns' potential return could mean for the Stars]


Wearing an unfamiliar number on his sweater -- No. 2 instead of his usual No. 28 -- and playing in a rink about one quarter the capacity of an NHL arena, Johns put on a show for the Texas Stars faithful in a 5-3 victory over the Toronto Marlies at H-E-B Center. 

He cranked home an unassisted power-play goal using his trademark slap shot -- an absolute cannon that had no chance of being stopped.

Watch: Youtube Video

He racked up a team-high seven shots and dished out three assists, two of which were primary helpers, including Tye Felhaber's game-winning goal.

He didn't shy away from contact either, throwing an array of blows with one sending Toronto's Scott Pooley flying to the ice behind the net in the third period.

He played all over the place -- even-strength, power play, penalty kill -- logging more than 20 total minutes of ice time (as tracked by Sean Shapiro of The Athletic).

"I didn't think there was a lot of rust in his game," Texas coach Neil Graham said.

There was none, it seemed. Johns was simply dominant as he works to return to the Stars' lineup following a lengthy recovery from post-traumatic headaches that first arose during training camp in September 2018 and have kept him out ever since.

He looked NHL-ready on Saturday.

"From the moment he stepped on the ice, he didn't belong here," goaltender Landon Bow said of Johns, who was named the game's first star and given multiple ovations by the announced crowd of 6,128. "He was dominating in every facet of the game. He was throwing guys around, he was making plays, he was so poised."

Originally supposed to begin his rehab stint on Friday, Johns' return was delayed one day after Texas' game was canceled because of a medical emergency with a member of the Toronto coaching staff. But when he finally took the ice, it was like Johns had never been away.

"It's been a tough road for him," said Texas captain Dillon Heatherington, who was partnered with Johns on the top defensive pairing. "Looking back at last night's game, he was all amped up and ready to go, so he just brought it all tonight. I'm just so happy for him."

Even before the opening puck drop, it was clear that Johns was eager to be back, sprinting out for pregame warmup second in line behind Bow.

Watch: Youtube Video

When the game began, the excitement didn't end.

"You learn a lot as a young player to see the obstacles you're going to have to overcome in your career," Bow said, "and I think everybody in that room is over the moon for that guy."

Where Johns goes from here remains to be seen. He will likely play in at least one more contest with Texas (they host Wilkes-Barre Scranton on Wednesday) and then, Dallas will re-evaluate his status. They could ask the league to allow Johns to play additional games in the AHL if they feel he needs more time or opt to activate him from injured reserve and add him to the roster.

Saturday was a huge step forward.

"You see him last year just trying to battle, trying to get back as hard as he can," Bow said. "So to see him finally come back here and put up a performance like that, it means a lot."

A special performance, and -- Dallas and Johns can only hope -- potentially a sign of what's to come.

Don't miss your chance to see the Stars take on the Buffalo Sabres when they return home to American Airlines Center on Thursday, Jan. 16 at 7:30 p.m. Get your tickets now!

This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.

Jeff Odom is the manager of and writes about the Stars/NHL. Follow him on Twitter @jeffodom.

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