Johnston scores twice, Stars push Avs to brink of elimination

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Associated Press

Patrick Graham

Published May 14, 20243 minute read

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DENVER (AP) — Wyatt Johnston scored twice on the eve of his 21st birthday as the Dallas Stars pushed Colorado to the brink of elimination Monday night with a 5-1 win in Game 4 that came hours after Avalanche standout Valeri Nichushkin was suspended for at least six months.

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Johnston had short-handed and power-play goals for the Stars, who grabbed a 3-1 lead in the second-round, best-of-seven series. Dallas can close it out at home in Game 5 on Wednesday.

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“He (Johnston) 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.”

Miro Heiskanen and Evgenii Dadonov also scored, while Sam Steel added a late empty-net goal. Jake Oettinger made 24 saves.

About an hour before the game, the NHL and NHL Players’ Association announced that Nichushkin was suspended for at least six months without pay. He was placed in Stage 3 of the league’s player assistance program. It’s the second time this season Nichushkin has been in the program.

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“We’re not going to use that as an excuse. We can’t and we won’t,” said Avalanche coach Jared Bednar, who found out after the morning skate and told his players when they returned to the rink before the game. “You have to be mentally tough.”

A Colorado lineup missing Nichushkin, the team’s leading goal scorer (nine) in this playoff run, struggled early to get on track and was outshot by a 16-2 margin in the first period. Casey Mittelstadt scored Colorado’s lone goal in the second.

“We looked frozen in the first period,” Bednar said. “We weren’t moving, we’re not skating. Looked like we were exhausted, and we should be the rest of the team.”

The Avalanche also were without standout defenseman Devon Toews, who was at a late scratch due to an illness. Colorado’s defense couldn’t prevent Johnston and the Stars from building a 3-0 lead in the second period. Dallas has yet to trail in regulation during the series.

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“We’ve played a lot of good hockey and put ourselves in some good positions,” Stars forward Joe Pavelski said. “It’s just a commitment to doing it the right way. That’s number 1 for us.”

Johnston, who turns 21 on Tuesday, scored his 10th and 11th career playoff goals. He became the eighth player in NHL history to reach double-digit post-season goals at age 20 or younger, according to league research.

He was presented a candy-bar cake with a candle after the game.

“It’s been a crazy, crazy couple of years,” Johnston said. “I’m just really grateful and just so happy to have put some amazing people on the way and just have a chance to be with the Stars.”

The Stars saw forward Roope Hintz leave the game after suffering an upper-body injury in the opening period.

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Alexandar Georgiev was kept busy all night, stopping 29 shots.

Avalanche forward Jonathan Drouin played in his first post-season game this season, stepping in to fill the void of Nichushkin. Drouin has been sidelined since he suffered a lower-body injury in the regular-season finale.

Caleb Jones was inserted into the lineup with Toews out and was whistled for two penalties.

The Avalanche dropped both home games to Dallas in this series. Colorado posted the NHL’s best home record (31-9-1) in the regular season.

It’s desperation time.

“We’ve got nothing to lose,” Avalanche forward Andrew Cogliano said. “You lay it on the line and see where the chips fall. …You want no regrets.”

Johnston took advantage of a Cale Makar turnover late in the first period and scored a short-handed goal to give the Stars a 1-0 lead. It’s the second short-handed goal of the series for Dallas.

The Stars outscored the Avalanche 6-0 in the opening period.

Colorado’s frustration was on display after the first-period buzzer, with Colorado defenseman Josh Manson taking exception to Jamie Benn running into Georgiev. Manson pounced on Benn and both were hit with penalties — Manson for roughing and Benn for goaltender interference. Benn delivered a big hit on Toews in Game 2.

Now, it’s back home to potentially end Colorado’s season.

“They’re not going to go down quietly,” DeBoer said. “We’re going to anticipate that the next game is going to be the toughest to win.”

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