Han­zal an­swers doubts with phys­i­cal re­turn

Player’s back holds up in first game ac­tion since spinal surgery

The Dallas Morning News - - Sports Day - Twit­ter: Mde­franks

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.

Cooper Neill/the As­so­ci­ated Press

Stars cen­ter Ja­son Spezza (right) con­trols the puck against San Jose left wing Mar­cus Sorensen. Dal­las won its fourth straight game.

Matthew.de­[email protected]­las­news.com

MATTHEW DE­FRANKS

MARTIN HAN­ZAL

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