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Wyatt’s way: Johnston continues meteoric rise with Game 4 surge

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The young forward, who turns 21 on Tuesday, continues to take massive strides this postseason on his way to becoming a gamebreaker

Wyatt Johnston was chatting about the penalty kill at morning skate before Monday’s Game 4 at Ball Arena, and said he really takes pride in the specialty.

Johnston was known as a two-way player in junior hockey and played a defensive role when he was with Team Canada in international play. Then, he was forced to earn his penalty kill time at the NHL level, and that made it even more special.

“It’s really important to me to be good on both ends of the ice,” said Johnston. “Penalty killing has always been something I wanted to do, and I’ve had a chance to be put in that position. It’s so important, you’ve seen it can make or break games, make or break series during playoff time.”

Wyatt Johnston speaks the media before Game 4

Johnston, who turns 21 on Tuesday, was prophetic. On Monday night, the Stars had a huge penalty kill in a scoreless game against the Colorado Avalanche and their vaunted man advantage. But before All-Star defenseman Cale Makar could even get the puck out of his own end, Johnston had poked it away and started a chaotic shorthanded scramble with teammate Sam Steel. In a flash, the young center put the puck in the net and Dallas had a lead it would once again not relinquish.

“He came out possessed tonight,” Stars coach Pete DeBoer said. “He was all over the rink. Just fantastic, fantastic young hockey player that’s going to be a cornerstone.”

Of course, Johnston would also go on to score a power play goal and add an assist in a 5-1 win that gives the Stars a 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. It was a spectacular performance and a reminder of just how far he has come with the Stars.

In his second season in Dallas, the versatile forward led the team in goal scoring with 32 goals in 82 games. Now, he’s doing it again with seven goals in 11 games. In Monday’s game, he became just the second player in NHL history to score a power play goal and a shorthanded goal in the same playoff game before the age of 21.

The other one? Wayne Gretzky.

“That Wayne Gretzky stat is pretty neat,” said teammate Jason Robertson. “You don’t see many guys under 21 kill penalties in itself and then surely not out there scoring goals on the power play, too. So obviously it’s a tremendous achievement and it just shows how prepared he is. He’s only going to keep going up from here.”

Johnston’s career already has been a rocket ride. He didn’t play the year before his draft season because of COVID, but Dallas still took him 23rd overall in 2021. He went back to Major Junior in 2021-22 and led the OHL in scoring with 124 points (48 goals, 78 assists) in 68 games. He followed that up with 41 points (14 goals, 27 assists) in 25 playoff games.

After that performance, the Stars decided to keep him on the NHL roster instead of sending him back to Juniors. He tallied 24 goals among 41 points in 82 games and made the NHL All-Rookie Team. Then, in the playoffs, he had his struggles with 6 points (4 goals, 2 assists) in 19 games. He did, however, score the game-winning goal to clinch each series against the Minnesota Wild and Seattle Kraken, so the flashes of potential were still present.

This season, Johnston has been one of the team’s best players on many nights – Monday being maybe the most impressive.

“It’s been a crazy, crazy couple of years,” Johnston said. “I don’t think if you were telling me I’d be in [this] position, playing in the NHL playoffs for the Stars, if you were to tell me that, I guess when was that, 2020 and COVID, I don’t know if I’d believe you,” said Johnston. “It’s been a pretty cool couple of years, and I’m just really thankful and just so happy to have met some amazing people on the way and just have a chance to be with the Stars.”

Wyatt Johnston and Jason Robertson recap Dallas’ Game 4 victory

The Stars are thankful, as well.

“He’s unreal,” said defenseman Miro Heiskanen. “It’s a lot of fun to watch. He’s amazed us every time.”

While veteran center Joe Pavelski added, “He got us going with a big shorthanded goal there, but he was all over it all night.”

Johnston finished with eight shots on goal and 12 shot attempts. He also picked up extra minutes because of an injury to Roope Hintz, and ate up that assignment with ease.

Johnston is part of a group of young players who could make this franchise competitive for the next decade. In the short term, he could help them make a serious run at a Stanley Cup. DeBoer said he feels Johnston is on the path to “wearing a letter” for the team in the near future, a nod to the fact he’s already a leader. When he had a chance to put in an empty-net goal and get a hat trick in the dying seconds, he instead passed to Steel, who scored his first goal of the playoffs.

“We’ve got a group in there that doesn’t want to cheat each other,” DeBoer said. “I mean, Wyatt Johnston has a chance at a hat trick with the empty net and passes off to Sam Steel so Sam Steel can get a goal. You know, when you have those types of unselfish things going on in your group, it’s really contagious. I’m just really proud of our approach.”

A big part of that philosophy for Johnston is the fact he loves to kill penalties. It’s a hard-working part of the game that not only helps your team, but can take energy away from your opponent.

“When we get a good kill, it feels really good,” Johnston said. “It not only protects us from letting in a goal, I think it can really build momentum if we have a good kill.”

And if you also score a goal on the kill, well that’s just like a birthday present.

“I think the guys have been waiting for a while for him to turn 21 so that he can join them legally in some of the places they like to go,” DeBoer said with a smile. “So I think he’s looking forward to that, too.”

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