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Where Is Wyatt Johnston’s Off Switch?

Wyatt Johnston skates with the puck
Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

If he so desired, Stars forward Wyatt Johnston could have celebrated Dallas's 5-1 Game 5 win over the Avalanche with his first-ever legal American drinks—after midnight, anyway. However, the much sweeter birthday shots were the opening two goals of the game, which he scored to help carry his team to within one win of the Western Conference final.

Where Johnston gets his energy is beyond me. I imagine that living with the veteran Joe Pavelski helped him adapt to the pros, and Dallas as a whole is in position to win a Cup largely because of how they've developed their young talent. But the NHL grind is meant to test the world's most durable bodies, and even for young players who don't know their own limits, an 82-game-plus-playoffs crucible, repeatedly and annually, will blindside those who are still adjusting to the highest level of hockey. Before reaching the Stars, Johnston had the opposite problem—his time with the Windsor Spitfires included a massive pandemic gap in the middle—but even playing one of the most draining NHL schedules possible hasn't yet gotten to him.

As a rookie last year, Johnston featured in all 82 regular season games, plus 19 more in the playoffs. This season, he iron-manned it again, and Game 5 marked his 93rd time on the ice since mid-October. He doesn't look tired. After leading the Stars in goals in the regular season, he's got a team-best seven through their first two series, and his contributions on Monday showed off not just his stamina but also his ability to shape-shift for multiple roles based on the situation.

Johnston's brace came on special teams, first in a 4-on-5 kill and then with the 5-on-4 advantage. (I move that this feat should be referred to as "the palindrome.") Just 19 seconds after Logan Stankoven went to the box for hooking, Johnston hustled his way into a surprise icebreaker. Cale Makar—a very good defenseman!—looked to start play from his own end, but the kid four years his junior harassed him into surrendering the puck. From there, Johnston ran the pick-and-roll with Sam Steel, blocking Makar from defending a Steel shot and then positioning himself for the rebound reward.

The second goal was just a pure, cool finish off some extended O-zone possession. A gorgeous fake-shot diagonal pass from Jason Robertson unlocked an opening for Johnston on the goalie's 3, and he didn't let the tricky angle or the moving obstacle break his concentration as he fired the puck off Alexandar Georgiev and in for the palindrome.

The Stars initially struggled in this series to play conservative hockey when they got out to a lead, but they had no such trouble this time. Near the final horn, with the score 4-1 and the net empty, Johnston got a chance for a hat trick as he raced through the neutral zone on a change of possession. Even here, however, he showed maturity, making a pass to Steel for the easier goal in a 2-on-1 situation. Steel should pick up the first round next time they go to a bar.

For the Avs, this 3-1 hole looks dire. Already they were a team worn thin by post-championship austerity and bad medical breaks. Now they also can't count on their leading postseason scorer, Valeri Nichushkin, who was hit with a lengthy suspension before puck drop for violating the terms of the player assistance program, i.e. failing a drug test. If they're going to muster up a miracle, they might as well start by containing the Stars' most effective offensive weapon. That's a big riddle for head coach Jared Bednar to suddenly solve in 48 hours. Perhaps his team can just try poking him in a bunch of different places to see if there's a spot that can turn him off.

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