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‘Straw that stirs the drink’: Mark Stone keys Knights’ run to finals

Updated June 3, 2023 - 12:45 pm

Mark Stone’s skates left the ice the second he saw Brett Howden scored in overtime against the Dallas Stars on May 19.

The Golden Knights captain then started a mad sprint to Howden in the corner of the offensive zone at the end of Game 1 of the Western Conference Final, mouth agape in ecstasy as he jumped to hug his teammate. It was an incredible display of emotion for someone who didn’t even score the winning goal.

It was also nothing new from Stone. His teammates know to expect that kind of outburst from him after a goal. It doesn’t matter the score, and it doesn’t matter whether Stone is playing or on the bench. He’s going to go nuts celebrating his team’s success.

That’s one reason the 31-year-old has served as the Knights’ emotional heartbeat since he was acquired from the Ottawa Senators in 2019. It’s also what has made his return from his second back surgery in nine months this postseason so important.

Stone is leading the Knights the only way he knows how. With energy, passion and enthusiasm that transcends his incredible impact on the ice.

Golden Knights captain Mark Stone. (Wes Rand/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Golden Knights captain Mark Stone. (Wes Rand/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

“Just very genuine,” said general manager Kelly McCrimmon, who coached Stone in junior hockey. “That’s what’s so intriguing about him. That’s just how he approaches the game.”

Knights coach Bruce Cassidy received a scouting report on Stone from an unexpected source: his nephew Drake, a Senators season ticket holder.

Drake insisted that Stone had the best stick in the NHL in terms of batting down passes and creating turnovers. After a season seeing Stone up close, Cassidy agrees.

“He might have the best stick in hockey in terms of takeaways,” he said. “You learn that part of it, how good he is at reading plays. … How dangerous he can be.”

His stick, hockey IQ and intensity are key reasons Stone went from a sixth-round pick in 2010 to one of the league’s best two-way players.

Defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said there are so many subtle things Stone does throughout a game that frustrate and annoy opponents. They’re ready to start a breakout, and he strips the puck. They’re about to spring a breakaway in the neutral zone, and he knocks the pass out of midair. Shift after shift, Stone does something to halt the other team’s momentum and tilt the game back in the Knights’ favor.

“He’s that kind of guy that makes everyone on the ice look good when he’s there,” right wing Jonathan Marchessault said. “He’s just a game-changer for us.”

The only question was whether the Knights would get the full version of Stone in the playoffs.

He injured his back Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers and didn’t appear the rest of the regular season. It continued a string of back problems for Stone, who had a lumbar discectomy in May 2021 after missing 45 games last season.

He tried to rehab after his injury this season but suffered a setback. He decided to have surgery Jan. 31, hoping it would put him on track to return for the playoffs. He did, and he resents anyone questioning the timing of his comeback because it made the Knights’ salary cap situation easier.

“I didn’t just float through a rehab,” Stone said. “I worked hard because I wanted to be a part of this. And it’s paid off for me.”

It’s worked out for the Knights, too.

Stone is tied for third on the team in points this postseason with 15 in 17 games. His presence has lengthened the Knights’ lineup and made them nearly impossible to match up with. He also impacts both special teams, because he’s a great net-front presence on the power play and a savvy penalty killer because of his intelligence.

More than anything else, Stone has brought the Knights juice. His teammates love his post-goal frenzy for a reason. His competitive fire is immeasurable, and it permeates through the rest of the group.

“He’s the player that really since the day he arrived has been the straw that stirs the drink,” McCrimmon said. “(Not only for) the things you see with his outward emotion, his passion to win, his excitement when he scores, his excitement when a teammate scores, but just how complete a player he is with his hockey sense, his skill set.”

Contact Ben Gotz at bgotz@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BenSGotz on Twitter.

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