Chandler Stephenson and the Golden Knights didn’t start off on the best of terms.
Stephenson was part of a Washington Capitals team that provided a sobering ending to the Knights’ otherwise magical inaugural season. He played in all five games of the Stanley Cup Final. He skated around T-Mobile Arena with the Cup.
But those hard feelings are gone now that Stephenson is with the Knights after a Dec. 2 trade. The 25-year-old forward has been welcomed with open arms, and that has appeared to help lift his game.
He’ll try to make another good impression when the Knights host the Vancouver Canucks at 5 p.m. Sunday.
“Since the first day, the group and coaching staff and everything has made me feel right at home,” Stephenson said. “I got the utmost confidence playing because the coaching staff has showed me that. The trust in myself. That’s huge.”
Coach Gerard Gallant immediately showed belief in Stephenson when he put him on the ice at the end of the Knights’ Dec. 3 game against the New Jersey Devils. Stephenson suddenly was helping to protect a 4-3 lead at the end of the third period for his new team. It made a huge early impression on the newcomer, a 2012 third-round pick of the Capitals when George McPhee, the Knights’ president of hockey operations, was Washington’s general manager.
The Knights then doubled down on their early faith in Stephenson by moving him to second-line center between left wing Max Pacioretty and right wing Mark Stone before Tuesday’s game against the Chicago Blackhawks. In eight days, Stephenson went from being expendable in Washington to centering the Knights’ two highest-paid forwards.
“I didn’t know much about him before he came,” Pacioretty said. “I obviously knew he was a fast player and didn’t get as much of a chance probably as he deserved in (Washington).”
Pacioretty knows a lot more now. Stephenson’s play has risen to the challenge of playing with two “All-Stars,” in his opinion. The career bottom-six grinder has three points (two goals, one assist) in six games with the Knights. He had four points in 24 games with the Capitals and 33 points in 168 career games before the trade.
He’s been able to show off speed that surprised Gallant. And Pacioretty, who boasts the team’s best wrist shot, has been impressed with Stephenson’s release.
Stephenson used it to best Dallas Stars goaltender Ben Bishop, a Vezina Trophy finalist last season, in the second period of the Knights’ 3-2 overtime win Friday.
“He, as you saw tonight (Friday), he’s got a phenomenal shot,” Pacioretty said. “It’s really nice to see a guy with a nice shot who’s really a pass-first guy. Obviously, his wheels are some of the best on the team. Whenever you play with a guy that fast, you want to try to make sure you keep pucks going north, and he did a good job of recovering them.”
Stephenson will be happy to keep chasing pucks from Pacioretty and Stone. But even if he moves down the lineup, he’s already proven to be a reliable addition to the Knights’ forward group with his speed, defensive acumen and penalty-kill prowess.
“He’s played real good. Good solid hockey,” Gallant said. “I think he’s getting to know his teammates well, and he’s fitting in real good with our group.”
Who: Canucks at Golden Knights
When: 5 p.m. Sunday
Where: T-Mobile Arena
TV: AT&T SportsNet (Cox 313/1313, DirecTV 684, CenturyLink 760/1760, U-verse 757/1757, Dish 414/5414)
Radio: KRLV (98.9 FM, 1340 AM)