Knights’ Stephenson making older brother proud in Cup Final: ‘He’s living through me’

Chandler Stephenson of the Vegas Golden Knights spoke about the hardships his brother went through following his decision to quit hockey after concussions and how he continues to play for his brother after all these years.

SUNRISE, FLA – Guys who play for themselves don’t last long in hockey.

They certainly don’t survive in the National Hockey League, where one of the core tenets, fundamental to the entire enterprise, is that you must put the team ahead of yourself. You have something truly special when players willingly put teammates ahead of themselves.

The Vegas Golden Knights moved one win away from the Stanley Cup when they beat the Florida Panthers 3-2 here Saturday to go up 3-1 in the NHL’s championship. There isn’t anyone on the deep, even, talented Vegas team playing for himself.

But Chandler Stephenson carries just a little extra in his heart.

The 29-year-old from Saskatoon won a Stanley Cup in 2018 – against Vegas in the Golden Knights’ incredible inaugural season – as an important depth forward with the Washington Capitals. Tuesday, in Game 5 in Las Vegas, he’ll have a chance to win another as a front-line centre with the Knights.

Powerful and explosive, Stephenson scored the first two goals on Saturday, one on a breakaway as he burst through an opening created by Panther Aaron Ekblad’s bad line change, the second on a quick and heavy one-timer from linemate Mark Stone’s pass.

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In both playoff runs, Stephenson has carried with him some of his big brother, Colton, who had to quit hockey in junior due to a series of concussions, and never had a chance to build the professional career that Chandler has chiselled.

“That’s something that he’s still dealing with,” Stephenson said Saturday when asked about his brother. “It’s 12 years removed from making one of the biggest decisions of his life. He wanted to be a hockey player more than anybody and, you know, to make that decision at such a young age. . . it’s something he’s still dealing with. 

“He’s living through me. He watches every game and says he feels or tries to not get too invested in it, you know, if somebody hits me or whatever. It’s obviously something that is tough but, at the same time, it’s pretty special for him to see me win the first one and hopefully the second one here.”

Colton Stephenson was 19 years old when he had to “retire” while playing for the Edmonton Oil Kings of the Western Hockey League. Two years younger, Chandler was just starting his junior career with the Regina Pats.

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Vegas general manager Kelly McCrimmon knew both boys, coaching against them with the Brandon Wheat Kings, and leapt at the chance to acquire Chandler from the Washington Capitals in 2019 for the clearance price of a fifth-round pick. 

The trade came a little more than a year after Stephenson had his name engraved on the Stanley Cup. He spent his day with the Cup in August, 2018, taking it up to Humboldt, Sask., and into Elgar Petersen Arena where half the town of 6,000 people gathered to celebrate the best of hockey while mourning the still-fresh loss of 16 lives in the Humboldt Broncos’ bus crash. Stephenson wore a Humboldt-Strong T-shirt.

Technically, Jack Eichel is the Knights’ first-line centre. But Stephenson has logged more ice time in the playoffs, averaging 20:08 per game before Saturday, when he was easily the most dangerous player on the ice.

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William Karlsson scored the other Vegas goal and the Knights, who lost a late lead and then Game 3 in overtime on Thursday, desperately hung on at the end as the Panthers skated six-against-four. Defencemen Zach Whitecloud and Brayden McNabb had massive shot blocks in the frantic final seconds before Knights goalie Adin Hill made what may turn out to be the save of the series when he lunged to get his left pad on Matthew Tkachuk’s point-blank shot just before the horn.

“I kind of saw where the puck was and just tried to do anything I could to get a piece of equipment on it,” Hill said. “In situations like that, it’s just full desperation.”

“They got a bounce (last game). . . and we weren’t going to let that happen again,” Knights defenceman Alex Pietrangelo, who took a puck-over-glass penalty with 17.4 seconds remaining, told reporters in the visitors’ dressing room. “I felt like we dug deep there for at least the 17 seconds and the 2 1/2 minutes before that. We found a way to get it done. You’ve got to be proud of these ones.”

A third-round pick of the Capitals in 2012, when Knights president George McPhee was the GM in Washington, Stephenson should be proud of the career he has built.

“He’s been big in big situations and big games,” original Knight Reilly Smith said. “But he’s been doing that the entire time he’s been here. He’s such a big part of this team. I can’t say enough about him, what he does for the team on and off the ice.”

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Pietrangelo said of Stephenson: “He’s got elite speed. It’s one or two steps and he’s gone. That’s the thing, he’s got that speed where he doesn’t necessarily need to show it. He can take a couple of steps and then off he goes. He’s got a really strong push to get going; it’s tough to handle when a guy is doing that.”

As experienced Cup winners, Stephenson and Pietrangelo will be important leaders between now and Tuesday night.

Hill acknowledged it is impossible not to think about a Stanley Cup so near to the Knights they can see their reflections in it.

“I mean, you can’t not,” he said. “It’s the ultimate goal in hockey, right? So there’s no way you can shut that off in your mind. But at the same time, it’s just staying in the moment. Focus on the next play, the next shift.”

As one of the innumerable players who spent years in the minors and had to claw for a place in the NHL, then launched themselves upwards, Stephenson has played his whole career trying to focus on the next shift.

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“Yeah, I mean, it’s different,” he said of trying to close out a Stanley Cup series. “You know, it’s a different game. Everybody knows what’s going to be there. Just try to play; that’s kind of the biggest thing. There’s a lot of emotion, a lot of everything. I think being at home too, the fans, everybody’s going to be into it. Emotion is going to be high, adrenaline, you know, everything. So I think the biggest thing is just (be) composed.

“I think everybody’s going to be ready. It’s one win away from a lot of dreams for a lot of guys.”

And all the dreams of people who are special to them.

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