Published Thursday, April 27, 2023 | 9:56 p.m.
Updated Thursday, April 27, 2023 | 11:43 p.m.
The chemistry between Mark Stone and Chandler Stephenson may never be understood.
The Golden Knights’ two All-Star forwards can’t comprehend it. Something just works when they skate together, as if they’re of the same brain and know where they’re going to be at all times.
Understandably so, it was going to take time for Stone to get back to his old self. Stephenson helped accelerate that process.
Stephenson scored twice — his first multigoal playoff game — and Stone had a goal and two assists to push the Golden Knights into the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a 4-1 win over the Winnipeg Jets in Game 5 at T-Mobile Arena on Thursday night.
“Sometimes you just find chemistry with a guy,” Stone said.
It’s one thing to find that chemistry and keep it going. It’s another entirely to have that chemistry over the course of three years since Stephenson arrived from Washington in December 2019 and make it work.
Then, you factor in Stone undergoing his second back surgery in less than a year, being away for three months, but coming back and seemingly not missing a beat.
That’s what Games 2-5 of this series showed, and the two line mates are the first team in the field of 16 to advance to the second round. The Golden Knights await the winner of the Edmonton/Los Angeles series, with the Oilers leading 3-2 and Game 6 on Saturday.
Stephenson has that Stanley Cup-winning pedigree, but not at this level. He was a fourth liner in 2018 with the Capitals and had seven points through 24 games that year.
In five games, he had eight points (four goals, four assists). He also joined former line mate Max Pacioretty as the only two Golden Knights to register four consecutive multipoint games.
“Confidence just built and built,” Stephenson said about his arrival, going from 33 points in five years in Washington to nearly 200 with Vegas in three-plus seasons. “When you play with Stoney and Patch, it helps.”
Stone, too, has found that confidence in his game with an eight-point series. He registered his second three-point game of the series Thursday night.
The line of Stone, Stephenson and left winger Brett Howden carried the offense in three of the Golden Knights’ victories in their four-game run after losing Game 1, 5-1.
William Karlsson added his fourth goal of the series in the win, and Laurent Brossoit made 30 saves to defeat his former team and goalie partner Connor Hellebuyck. Brossoit played three seasons in Winnipeg before signing with Vegas in 2021.
Vegas outscored Winnipeg 18-9 in Games 2-5.
“We had a game plan we wanted to stick with until it didn’t work, which it never didn’t work,” Stone said. “I think we accomplished what we wanted to accomplish.”
With all the good that came with Vegas winning its eighth playoff series in six years, the good news offset some of the bad that arrived prior to puck drop.
The Golden Knights were down two of their top four defensemen. Brayden McNabb (upper body) is day-to-day, and Shea Theodore was a late scratch due to an illness. AHL Henderson captain Brayden Pachal and 30-year-old Ben Hutton played their first Stanley Cup Playoff games.
But for all the scratches, Vegas was healthiest at the forward position for the first time since the beginning of the season.
William Carrier returned to the lineup for the first time since March 3 with a lower-body injury. It’s the first time since the beginning of the season where the Golden Knights had all forwards healthy and accounted for. Carrier replaced Phil Kessel, who was not in the lineup in an NHL game for the first time since Nov. 3, 2009.
Carrier played 9:52, but had two shots on goal and a team-high six hits.
Even with those changes, it still might have been the Golden Knights’ best performance all series. This time, it took 50 seconds to set the tone.
After an extended stint in the offensive zone, Stephenson scored his third goal of the series on a tap-in from Stone less than a minute into the game for a 1-0 lead.
Stephenson’s goal was the third fastest to open a playoff game in team history (Stone: 0:19 (R1, G3 – 2019), Jonathan Marchessault: 0:35 (R3, G3 – 2018).
Winnipeg looked like a team that was already defeated rather than trying to fight for its playoff life. The Golden Knights were first to every loose puck, first to win every battle. The relentless pressure carried, even with the Golden Knights down two significant pieces on their blue line.
The snowball kept rolling in the second period.
Stone caught an airborne puck in the offensive zone, settled it down, and beat Hellebuyck glove side 42 seconds into the middle frame for a 2-0 lead.
Karlsson scored his fourth of the series at 4:41 off a backhand pass from Michael Amadio to make it 3-0, and Stephenson scored his second — a power-play goal at 8:37 — to make it 4-0.
“I don’t think we gave up much,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “I thought it was our closest to complete, but we still have things to work on.”
Cassidy was asked Wednesday about taking a team’s soul when it’s on the ropes. The Golden Knights’ coach preferred to be asked that after Game 5.
While the answer was vague at the time, what happened in the first 40 minutes might be the closest thing to it.
One thing’s for sure: The Golden Knights are going into Round 2 with a healthy Stone and an effective Stephenson playing on the third line. Not many teams can match that.
“I think a lot of people were questioning us after Game 1, and maybe after the first period in Game 2,” Stone said. “But we took over.”