T ypical Mark Stone.”
That is how Vegas Golden Knights coach Bruce Cassidy chose to describe the wildly atypical play his captain made in Game 2 of this Stanley Cup Final. The sequence — equal parts effort and thought, skill and luck, brains and brawn, instinct and emotion — made the rounds. You’ve probably already seen it from a couple of angles.
Snapping his unusually knobbed stick while defending in the Vegas zone with the Florida Panthers still cycling possession, Stone glides through pointman Brandon Montour’s shooting lane, pushes Montour on his keister, snatches a fresh weapon from dialed-in assistant equipment manager J.W. Aiken, realizes the Knights have regained possession, crosses the offensive blueline, gathers a pass, and then whips a puck on the tape of linemate Brett Howden for an open look. Bang. Goal.
“Typical Mark in terms of having the composure to sort through things that are happening quickly and slow it down in his mind,” Cassidy explained the morning after his team took a commanding 2-0 series lead.
Amazingly, that “typical” gotta-see-it play arrived on the heels of another highlight goal Stone authored in Game 1 — the one where he whacked Matthew Tkachuk’s clearing attempt out of the ether, then snapped a puck clean past Sergei Bobrovsky — and both moments were punctuated by the veteran’s caveman-discovers-fire celebration face.
Sure, Stone may not be the prettiest skater, but, without question, the man is a beauty.
“The more you watch him, the more you appreciate him because there’s no defining skill that jumps off,” says GM Kelly McCrimmon. “It’s not like when you go to watch Jack Eichel and you can instantly see how beautiful a skater he is. Mark Stone’s game is a lot different than that. But just a really respected player.”
Over his 584-game NHL run, Stone has appeared on ballots for the Calder, Selke, Lady Byng, and Hart. Yet it will be fitting if the first major trophy the team-first guy touches is the Stanley Cup. (Teammates’ superstitions prevented him from laying hands on the Clarence Campbell bowl.)
“He’s really passionate in terms of how he plays,” McCrimmon continues. “He makes the people around him better. Tremendous hockey sense.”
“He’s our captain. He’s our leader. He makes those big plays. I think that the fourth goal in Game 1 really allowed us some breathing room. It’s just a high-end play by him,” says Cassidy, noting Stone’s elite hand-eye led to a similar goal in Round 1 versus his hometown Winnipeg Jets. “He knocked one out of the air that was unbelievable and finished a play for us. So, [he] certainly has the ability to make those types of plays. And just his raw emotion.”
Alongside its sheer intensity, the other thing that stands out about Stone’s emotion is that he unleashes it after goal horns but not after whistles.
The 31-year-old’s history of back injuries and issues is painfully documented, and postseason opponents, particularly the Edmonton Oilers, have been targeting his lower back like the Death Star’s thermal exhaust port. Yet Stone is the last to retaliate, and his (mostly) disciplined teammates are taking cues and exhibiting toughness via restraint.
“His leadership in terms of composure versus physicality. He’s been a guy that other teams circle on the board, and he’s had to play through it in a number of different series,” says Cassidy.
Stone’s head-down approach fires a silent message through the room, the coach explains: “Hey, you know what? We’re okay. We’ve got this. We’ll take a few hits along the way, a few slashes, whatnot. We’ll just keep playing and have our common goal at the forefront, not worry about retribution or anything like that.”
Forget retribution, Stone’s mere participation in these playoffs was in doubt after he underwent two back surgeries in a span of nine months. Nah, this is about redemption.
But first came rehabilitation, resolve, and a dash of reluctance. Just don’t dare bring up that other “R” word.
“I was never gonna give up,” says Stone, recalling his feelings about going back under the knife. “Retirement never crossed my mind, if that’s part of the question. But I was definitely nervous for sure.
“The first [surgery], I thought I cleared it up. I guess that’s the thing that was tough. It felt like I was playing good. Felt like I was feeling good, too. And then, all of a sudden — boom — it happens.”
Ironically, Stone’s back was reinjured against these very Panthers, just a few shifts into a Jan. 12 home win. Initially, the club thought he would be able to rehab and return after the all-star break. A setback made surgery imperative if Stone was to keep his season alive.
“At the time he had the surgery, there was concern that his career might be in jeopardy, because it was the second back surgery in nine months,” McCrimmon says. “So, real credit to him and the work that he’s put in.”
Head up, Stone found a teammate. Eichel pointed his captain to the same Denver-based neurosurgeon, Dr. Chad Prusmack, who helped give Eichel’s career a second act.
“Obviously, I think the world of him. He’s been super helpful for me,” Eichel says. “And he helped Stoney out. So, it’s good to have somebody that’s had a similar experience. You can kind of go back-and-forth and learn a little from what he did and vice versa.”
Says Stone: “I feel great now. I feel super confident. And the surgery that was performed in January, I love the doctor.”
Mark Stone also loves Vegas.
From the moment McCrimmon pulled off that blockbuster trade-and-sign with the Ottawa Senators at the February 2019 deadline, the winger knew the fit was right. Which is why he so quickly put pen to paper on a (tax-free) eight-year, $76-million commitment instead of testing free agency.
As an impending UFA, Stone had already made a wish list for life after Ottawa. Vegas and the Knights checked all three boxes: sold-out arena housing passionate fans; comfortable city with good food and warm weather; and a chance to win the Stanley Cup.
“It was not the easiest thing to just sign a contract never really being in the city, but I know some people who love playing here, love living here, so that made it easier,” Stone explains. “Yeah, obviously no income tax is great [but] ‘Well, what are we building here?’ is what I want to know. And we’ve built a great team, a great fan base, an awesome place to live. So, for me, that’s why I love playing here.”
Stone’s comfort with McCrimmon stretches back to the right winger’s four years and 296 points with the Brandon Wheat Kings. Now, a couple of humble Prairie boys are one win away from bringing the Cup to the Strip.
“I knew it was going to take a pretty special job for him to leave Brandon, because of how much he cared about that organization, cares about in that city. So, I don’t even know if I really needed to talk to him,” Stone says of his GM. “The fact he was here, I knew it was something good going on here.”
Stone — arguably the best two-way winger in the sport — is one of several pricey McCrimmon imports (Alex Pietrangelo, Eichel) elevating that goodness to greatness. Through the first four games, he’s tallied six points and contributed to Vegas’s perfect 13-for-13 penalty kill. One more win, and commissioner Gary Bettman will ask the captain to be the first Golden Knight in history to hoist the chalice. (Heck, maybe Vegas should petition for Dr. Prusmack’s name to be engraved on the thing, too.)
“He probably went a little underrated there for a while. It’s good to see that he’s gotten the recognition he deserves,” Eichel says. “We see it every day. I think when you spend that much time with someone, you’re able to appreciate them even more. And I think that’s the case with Stoney.
“He’s a guy that went through some adversity this year, had to get a surgery midseason, and that’s not easy. But he battled his way back, and here he is. And he’s been awesome for us in the playoffs.”
Typical Mark Stone.