Friday, May 5, 2023 | 2 a.m.
Mark Stone crouched down and shimmied his shoulders in his final move on the ice Wednesday night at T-Mobile Arena following the Vegas Golden Knights’ 6-4 Game 1 playoff victory over the Edmonton Oilers.
It was a far more graceful and joyous rink exit than he managed Tuesday morning at City National Arena when the 30-year-old labored out of practice in a manner that had fans fearing he tweaked a chronic back injury. Stone quelled those concerns a day later by leading the upset of the Oilers with yet another stat-stuffing performance in his sixth game back from surgery to address the aforementioned back issue in January.
He led the Golden Knights’ forwards in ice time (19:46), put up two points (one goal and one assist) and forced two takeaways.
“It’s no surprise, obviously,” Vegas defenseman Zach Whitecloud said. “Mark Stone, this time of year, you’ve got guys that have a switch and can just flip it and it’s playoff time. To be able to get (Stone) back in our lineup and the way he leads, the way he plays the game of hockey, leads us as a team, his energy, talking, the way he handles pucks, the way he defends…”
Whitecloud’s endorsement of Stone went on a bit longer, but you get the point: It was effusive. And it felt somewhat out of place as most of the Golden Knights who spoke postgame saved more superlatives for their opponents than their teammates.
“Talented” and “dangerous” were the buzz words regarding the Oilers, and must have been muttered 100 times between the Golden Knights’ locker room and their news conference. Vegas’ players seemed to be nothing but sincere, but part of you has to be hoping that they’re actually seething inside while sharing the compliments. That they’re really being as theatrical as Stone in his much-discussed celebrations to avoid rolling their eyes or laughing off all the talk about Edmonton’s “top-end” — another phrase at least one Golden Knight used — personnel.
The recent gushing over the Oilers is even more over the top by analysts, and implicit in the praise is the insinuation that the Golden Knights aren’t on the same level.
It was Vegas that won the Pacific Division after all, albeit by the slimmest of margins (two points) that more advanced numbers indicated was probably undeserved. But the billing of this series for the right to go to the Western Conference Finals would lead anyone to believe that the Golden Knights are like the Mighty Ducks — either the motley original 1992 Disney fictional version or the very real 2022-2023 Anaheim team that finished with the league’s worst record — next to the all-world Oilers.
They’re neither that ragtag nor even anything like the franchise’s original “misfit” team that famously reached the Stanley Cup Final five years ago. The Golden Knights may not have two of the world’s very best players like the Oilers’ Leon Draisaitl, who scored all four of the team’s goals in Game 1, and Connor McDavid, but they’re also not lacking for star power.
“There are special players that do special things,” Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said when asked about Draisaitl. “We have some of those (too).”
None are more special than Stone, who’s spent the early portion of the playoffs reminding everyone of that fact. The winger is leading the team with 10 postseason points despite looking “rusty,” in Cassidy’s words, to start the first-round series against Winnipeg in his first action in nearly five months.
No, Stone may not be as flashy as McDavid, Draisaitl or even Vegas teammate Jack Eichel, who like Stone had a goal and assist to start the Edmonton series. Eichel is getting most of the media attention on the Vegas side because of the way he’s forever linked with McDavid as the top two picks of the 2015 NHL Draft.
But Stone remains Vegas’ best player. And there’s no one playing on either side of the series who’s as much of a game-changer both offensively and defensively.
It’s amazing that Stone has so effortlessly regained his form after all the time away, and that he maintained it despite the Oilers’ best efforts in Game 1. News of Stone’s potential re-aggravated injury had clearly and unsurprisingly reached Edmonton as the visitors targeted him with a series of early big hits.
The Golden Knights began protesting some borderline crosschecking on Stone, and the constant barrage diminished, if only slightly.
“It hurts to win and Stoney is a big example of that,” Whitecloud said. “He’s taken a lot and he doesn’t retaliate. He does that sort of thing, and that feeds through our lineup.”
Stone’s impact may go beyond any quantifiable number, and hopefully can be on display throughout the rest of the Golden Knights’ postseason run. He hasn’t spoken to the media since the apparent practice scare, but Cassidy has insisted he’s fine and demonstrated as much by giving the captain his normal allotment of ice time to start the series with Edmonton.
As long as Stone is playing, the Golden Knights are nowhere close to overmatched. It’s going to be a tight series regardless, one Draisaitl and McDavid may well steal despite the Stone-led Game 1 win.
But the Golden Knights are in a fairer fight than some of the descriptions of both teams would lead you to believe. This isn’t a stars versus scrubs series.
“We’re aware of their top guys and the damage they can do, but we like our team,” Cassidy said. “We feel that if our team plays well, then we’ll have success.”