LAS VEGAS — It took 48 hours longer than planned, but Mark Stone returned to play like Mark Stone just in the nick of time.
The Golden Knights captain, who looked tenuous in Tuesday’s 5-1 loss to Winnipeg in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, found his footing in Game 2 Thursday at T-Mobile Arena. Stone scored twice and picked up an assist as Vegas evened the series 1-1 with a 5-2 victory in front of 18,333.
Game 3 is Saturday in Winnipeg.
“You always want to contribute,” Stone said. “I don’t want to miss this.
“When I got traded (from Ottawa in 2019), this is the team I want to play for, the team I want to win with, the team I want to go to war with. So just to be back in here means the world to me.”
I’m sure Jack Eichel feels the same way. Eichel scored his first-ever postseason goal in the second period to give the Knights a 2-1 lead. Like Stone, Eichel looked much more comfortable in the playoff atmosphere and when he and Stone, along with Alex Pietrangelo, who had two assists, are on their game, Vegas is a tough out.
And that’s why this series is all square. Vegas’ best players outplayed Winnipeg’s Thursday. The Golden Knights’ centers outplayed their Jets counterparts, something that didn’t happen in Game 1. William Karlsson, in particular, played dominant hockey. He scored for the second straight game in these playoffs, the Knights won the majority of the faceoff draws (52 percent) and controlled the middle of the ice at both ends, helping take away Winnipeg’s time and space and helping out goaltender Laurent Brossoit, who stopped 31 of the 33 shots he faced in picking up his first-ever playoff win.
But Stone is the top storyline here. He admitted he’s still shaking off the rust from three months of inactivity after undergoing back surgery in January, his second in eight months. He’s still trying to get his legs under him and that was evident when he was able to get to pucks with that long stick of his that he normally deflects when on defense or corrals when the Knights are in attack mode.
“I have to try and be patient with myself,” he said. “But yeah, I’m getting there. Each shift, I feel a little more comfortable.”
Bruce Cassidy is willing to stay patient with Stone. If he was going to put him in the lineup, he wasn’t going to take him out after struggling in one game.
He made a subtle move to help Stone in the second period, moving Michael Amadio off the third line and switching to Brett Howden to team with Stone and Chandler Stephenson. The line immediately clicked as Howden’s speed complimented Stephenson’s and it led to the first of Stone’s two goals with a quick transition out of the Vegas defensive zone, a great head- manned pass to Stephenson who found Stone at the right doorstep allowing him to beat Connor Hellebuyck.
“You try and find things that work,” said Cassidy, who has pushed the right buttons for the most part all season as his first as the Knights’ coach. “We made a couple of switches and it paid off.”
It’s one thing to provide an emotional lift to your teammates by suiting up. It’s even bigger when you’re contributing. Stone’s three-point evening and his wonky back holding up enough to help carry his team on it is the most positive sign for the Knights heading into Game 3 in Stone’s hometown of Winnipeg. His family and friends will see him happy and hungry for more success.
It also sent a message to the Jets that they will have to deal with Vegas’ captain, who is ready to do battle and will need to be accounted for each shift he’s on the ice for. It’s the kind of stuff that makes the NHL’s postseason so compelling.