The pessimists will need to pick a new postseason preoccupation.
In the rare instances when something went wrong for the Vegas Golden Knights in last year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, the snap reaction was pre-determined and persistent.
The Golden Knights’ had no star skater.
Retire that take right next to the one that suggests Sharks goalie Martin Jones turns it up to a new level for the playoffs in the rafters of delusion.
Vegas mangled Jones in a 6-3 Game 3 victory over San Jose Sunday night at T-Mobile Arena behind a superstar performance from trade-deadline acquisition Mark Stone. The winger had the first playoff hat trick in franchise history, and two assists, to lead the Golden Knights to a commanding 2-1 series advantage heading into Game 4 at 7:30 Tuesday night.
“I just love being here, love playing in Vegas with these teammates, these fans, this city,” Stone said. “This is why I came here — to play playoff hockey.”
Stone arrived in Vegas a month and a half ago as a fringe NHL A-lister. Believers argued he was a top-20 player; dissenters deigned more in the 50 range.
The latter group is dissipating now. From the moment Stone stepped onto the ice with viable complements in Vegas — as opposed to in Ottawa, which had the most barren roster in the league this year — it was obvious he was worth every cent of the $76 million extension he signed.
Stone’s possession metrics and advanced stats were immediately off the charts next to linemates Max Pacioretty and Paul Stastny. He chipped in a respectable five goals and six assists in 18 regular-season games, but the underlying numbers indicated more production was coming.
It’s arrived now.
Going into the second week of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Stone leads the league with six goals and eight points. Just as importantly, he’s ascended to the leader of the Golden Knights.
Locker-room whispers and on-ice flashes through the first two playoff games had hinted that the team was running off of Stone’ amplified energy, but it was on full display for the first time Sunday night.
“I’m an emotional player and I think this is the best time of year,” he said. “I love playing these games. I think we all do.”
Stone made that apparent and set the tone for his teammates from the beginning. In the opening 10 seconds, he split the Sharks’ defense, found a lane to the net, received a rope of a pass from Nate Schmidt and flung the puck over Jones’ shoulder with a backhanded shot.
The score came in 16 seconds, the fastest-ever in Golden Knights’ postseason history.
“He’s a special player: Any time you give him the puck with any type of space, he’s going to do something with it,” Schmidt said. “I don’t mean to put pressure on the guy but it’s just reality. He’s an exceptional player — a couple great first steps, and all of a sudden, he puts himself in position. His backhand is as hard as my forehand. It’s just impressive. You give a guy like that some space and he’s going to score. That’s what happens with goal scorers. You give them time in the playoffs and they make plays.”
Stone’s final goal, which resulted in a mass casualty of headwear tossed from the highest reaches of the arena, ended up every bit as essential as the first. The Sharks scored twice in less than a minute early in the third period to give themselves a glimmer of hope by cutting the Golden Knights’ lead to 5-3.
But Stone embarrassed Jones with his backhand once again a few minutes later. Asked how the Golden Knights kept their composure when their cushion slipped away, Schmidt smiled and sufficed with a simple answer.
“We sent Mark Stone out there,” he said.
The response caught a couple chuckles, but Schmidt was serious. Chalk it up as the classic example of a team looking towards their superstar to make a play when it matters most.
The Golden Knights may not have been able to enjoy such a luxury a year ago. Stone has changed everything.