Mark Stone was blunt after the Vegas Golden Knights were eliminated by the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Semifinals last season, saying it fell on the top players and he’d have to see what went wrong.
So now that he has had a chance to process it, what did go wrong? What did he learn? What will it take for the Golden Knights to take the next step this season, starting with their regular-season opener against the Seattle Kraken at T-Mobile Arena on Oct. 12 (10 p.m. ET; ESPN, SN, TVAS)?
“I think there were a lot of things that went through my mind for a month, thinking about it,” the Vegas captain said. “I don’t think I handled the pressure well. I don’t think I … obviously, my game changed because of it. I think there were a lot of guys that felt the same kind of pressure, and we didn’t battle adversity as well as we [would’ve] liked.”
The Golden Knights have played four seasons in the NHL and made the Stanley Cup Playoffs four times, losing in the semifinal round twice and the Cup Final once. They had the most wins (40) and tied the Colorado Avalanche for the most points (82) last season, losing the Presidents’ Trophy due to the regulation-wins tiebreaker (35-30).
That’s incredible and still not good enough, because their only goal is the Cup.
Stone scored 61 points (21 goals, 40 assists) in the regular season in 2020-21, tied for 11th in the NHL, and eight points (five goals, three assists) in 13 games in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Then he scored no points in six games against Montreal and said afterward he got “skunked.”
He was not alone. Forwards Max Pacioretty (24), Stone (21), Alex Tuch (18), Jonathan Marchessault (18), Chandler Stephenson (14), William Karlsson (14) and Reilly Smith (14) led Vegas in goals in the regular season and combined for 25 goals in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Then they combined for two goals against Montreal and the power play went 0-for-15 in the series.
“You just have to find that one or two goals that puts you over the top,” Stone said. “We felt like we didn’t score, but we lost in six games. So we score a goal in Game 3 (a 3-2 overtime loss), we win the game. We score a goal in Game 6 (a 3-2 overtime loss), we win the game. It’s not huge. It’s just little things, right?”
Stone pointed to Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby, a three-time Stanley Cup champion.
“He scores big goals at big times,” Stone said. “He just finds a way to get that one little goal here or one great play here, and that’s where I think our team has to find that — myself, Pacioretty, Karlsson, Marchessault, Smith, all those guys that are relied on to score. At the same time, we have 20 guys that can do it. We just need to, as a team, collective team, find a way to do it.”
The Golden Knights added reinforcements in the offseason, acquiring forward Evgenii Dadonov in a trade with the Ottawa Senators on July 28 and center Nolan Patrick from the Philadelphia Flyers (via the Nashville Predators) on July 17. Each can help at 5-on-5 and on the power play.
“I think those adds are going to help us big time, especially with Dadonov in the middle [on the power play], having a guy who takes pride in being there and can score,” Stone said.
The Golden Knights had to trade Marc-Andre Fleury to the Chicago Blackhawks on July 27 to clear space under the NHL salary cap, a bold move considering Fleury had been the face of the franchise since the 2017 NHL Expansion Draft and is the reigning winner of the Vezina Trophy, which goes to the League’s best goalie as voted by the general managers.
But Vegas has Robin Lehner, an elite goalie in his own right, and now there is no doubt who is No. 1.
“Sometimes it’s tough to have two guys,” Stone said. “I think for Robin, he’s going to show his true colors this year as a goaltender and not just as a teammate, because he was an incredible teammate to us last year (backing up Fleury), and I think this year we’re all really excited to see where he takes his game.”
Stone brought up multiple Stanley Cup champions who fell short before reaching their goal, most notably the Tampa Bay Lightning. After several disappointments, including getting swept in the first round by the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2018-19 after earning 128 points in the regular season, fourth-most in NHL history, they won the Cup in 2020 and again in 2021.
“You go through those ups and downs, and you learn,” Stone said. “I think our team, not just personally, but as a team, is going to learn from all this stuff. … Everybody’s kind of learning how to handle that pressure and find a way to get over that hump.”