BUFFALO, N.Y. - Roope Hintz was one of the only people in KeyBank Center to know.
With a joyous kick of his left leg and an exuberant pump of his right fist, Hintz celebrated his first of two goals during the Stars' 2-0 win over the Sabres on Tuesday night, while the rest of the arena wondered how a puck could go in and out of the net so quickly.
Hintz collected a loose puck after Jason Dickinson's shot hit the post and flipped a puck over Sabres goaltender Linus Ullmark's shoulder with both speed and ease. The puck ricocheted off the back bar and out so quickly that many believed it simply hit the crossbar.
Instead, it set off a celebration and kick-started Hintz's first multi-goal game of his career. Hintz scored again later in the second period on the power play by shooting from the top of the circle, past a screen by Alexander Radulov.
Hintz's night, along with a third straight shutout from Ben Bishop, was a welcome one for the Stars' playoff push. It gave them their fifth win in the last six games and moved them three points ahead of Minnesota for a playoff spot in the Western Conference, and two behind St. Louis for third place in the Central Division.
But it's also the proof of a reality that's been building across the last month: Hintz has changed the composition of Dallas' top-six forward group, and added a dangerous element that the team has been searching for.
"He's given us another option, right?" Stars coach Jim Montgomery said. "He's clearly a top-six forward for us, and someone that's emerging that has given us opportunity, especially once we get healthy again, we're really going to be able to have a top six."
Hintz now has seven goals on the season, including four in his last seven games while being trusted with top-line minutes alongside Tyler Seguin and Radulov, plus manning the top power-play unit as well. At times this season, he's taken on penalty killing duties, and his speed is among the best on the roster.
He's given the Stars another legitimate option in their top six, an area of need most of the season as Seguin, Radulov and Jamie Benn carried the load. Hintz' emergence, coupled with the eventual return of Mats Zuccarello gives the Stars a balanced top six, and one that can be dynamic when the postseason rolls around.
Add the newfound balance up front to the excellent defense and dominant goaltending, and the Stars and general manager Jim Nill have concocted a formula worth replicating once the regular season ends.
"We knew he was a good player at the beginning of the year, I think he's just getting more comfortable and more confident," Bishop said. "The plays he's making tonight, that's big league, that's borderline superstar play. He's got elite speed. He's got a great shot. I think the more he learns the game, he's just going to get that much better. The future is going to be really bright for him."
The Stars and Montgomery tried a myriad of options in the top six, looking to spark the league's 29th-ranked offense. Justin Dowling, Tyler Pitlick, Valeri Nichushkin, Devin Shore, Denis Gurianov and Mattias Janmark all got opportunities to play next to Seguin on the top line. Now, Hintz has owned the role.
Hintz, a second-round pick in 2015, began the season as the Stars' fourth-line center, a job he earned during training camp. His play forced Dallas to waive Remi Elie, then Gemel Smith. His 6-foot-3, 215-pound frame offered size that doesn't often accompany his kind of speed.
"You can see his confidence is growing, he's holding on to the puck, he's skating with it," forward Blake Comeau said. "I think when he first came up, he had all the tools, but I think he was looking to pass. Now, it looks like he's driving the play himself and he's taking things into his own hands. It's really nice to see the amount of strides he's made since he first came up. He's been outstanding, we're going to need him down the stretch."
Tuesday night was Hintz's best game as a Star, but certainly not the first time he's flashed his potential. During a win over Florida, he fed a streaking Seguin for a goal. After the game, Seguin said he even had to tell Hintz to slow down at times. During a win in Los Angeles, he jammed home the game-winning goal in overtime. He's consistently drawn penalties, actually drawing more penalties (seven) than he's been called for (four) when playing 5-on-5.
Hintz said his confidence is "pretty good" now. What's been the biggest improvement in his game?
"Maybe try to play your own game and don't think too much about each day," Hintz said.
His game has certainly been enough for the Stars.
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