Hanzal answers doubts with physical return
Player’s back holds up in first game action since spinal surgery
Matthew Defranks: Stars center Martin Hanzal, playing for the first time in 10 months after back surgery, announced his return with a crushing hit in a 3-2 victory.
The day before the Stars’ 3-2 win over the Sharks on Friday night, Martin Hanzal wondered aloud about the dual uncertainties of his surgically repaired spine and the physicality of an NHL game. He was playing his first hockey game in 10 months against San Jose, a rare sight of health during his year-plus in Dallas.
He felt good. But what if he got roughed from behind? What if he got hammered by a cross-check? What if he took an awkward fall to the ice?
About five minutes into his season debut, Hanzal quelled the doubts.
With one tuck of his left shoulder along the boards, Hanzal flattened Sharks forward Joonas Donskoi. In one crushing hit, Hanzal announced his return to the NHL following his third back surgery in March.
“I was going to test it early, really soon,” Hanzal said. “I threw some hits, and it’s holding, so it’s good.”
Stars coach Jim Montgomery added: “As he got more into the game, he was able to get more into the battle and win those battles. What it does for our team is it gives us not only momentum but it gives us energy and belief that we’re imposing our will on the other team.”
The Stars scored twice in the third period to break a 1-1 tie and win their fourth consecutive game. Mattias Janmark, Miro Heiskanen and Brett Ritchie scored for Dallas, and Ben Bishop calmed a San Jose attack that fired 43 shots on goal.
It was the first time this season the Stars have won four games in a row, and their plus-seven goal differential is the highest since the second game of the season on Oct. 6. Dallas is 16-10-3 and begins a four-game road trip Sunday in Vegas.
With Hanzal’s long-awaited return to the lineup, Montgomery tempered expectations. Hanzal wouldn’t be on the top line like he was two years ago in Arizona. He wouldn’t be on a shutdown line like his defensive game allows. Instead, he played with Devin Shore and Jason Spezza on a line designed for an offensive role.
Montgomery said Hanzal would play between 10 and 13 minutes before he gets increased responsibility in subsequent games. He finished Friday with 12:22, including 2:23 on the power play and 49 seconds on the penalty kill.
“I would say it’s probably the hardest game of my life,” Hanzal said. “It was 10 months I haven’t played hockey, so it was a really tough game.”
Hanzal won’t win many races, and his lack of speed detracts from his elite faceoff skills and penalty-killing prowess. At times Friday night, he looked rusty. Reads were slow. He turned the puck over to Evander Kane behind his own net, leading to a San Jose chance in the second period.
But he still brings size and physicality that can sometimes be missing from the Stars’ forward group.
“I thought his first couple of shifts, he was watching and looked like the game was fast for him, which you would expect,” Montgomery said. “It’s not easy to come into this league after 28 games and try and be in the middle of it. As the game went on, I thought he got better and better.”
When the Stars were protecting a late lead and Montgomery shortened his bench to nine forwards, he included Hanzal among the nine. (Ritchie, Shore and Spezza were excluded.) Montgomery said he leaned on Hanzal late, even if his fitness was providing an obstacle.
“I felt like in the first period, I was a little bit nervous because that was a long time,” Hanzal said. “I thought I got a little better in the second and third, I was out of gas. Bottom line is I need to get better, and I know I can be better. So I just need to build on that.”
Wait for Honka: Defenseman Julius Honka has not played a game in two weeks and was a healthy scratch for the fifth straight game against the Sharks. Montgomery again chose AHL recalls Joel Hanley and Taylor Fedun over the former first-round pick.
Honka’s last game was Nov. 24 in Colorado, when a mistake led to the first Avalanche goal. He was benched for more than 10 minutes after the mistake.
“Our D corps is playing so well right now that he’s going to have to wait for that opportunity to happen because of injury and/or someone not playing well,” Montgomery said.
Honka has three assists in 19 games.
Honka’s competition for playing time will increase later this month, when the Stars could welcome back defensemen John Klingberg (broken hand) and Connor Carrick (fractured foot) around Christmas. Stephen Johns (posttraumatic headaches) and Marc Methot (knee) have uncertain timelines for a return.
Stars center Jason Spezza (right) controls the puck against San Jose left wing Marcus Sorensen. Dallas won its fourth straight game.