Mark Stone [600x600]
Mark Stone [600x600] (Credit: Icon Sportswire)

Irving aims to silence C s crowd self-doubt

DALLAS -- Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone said Monday that he will play in Game 1 of his team's Western Conference quarterfinal series against the Dallas Stars at the American Airlines Center.

Stone had been out of the Golden Knights lineup since Feb. 20 when he was diagnosed with a lacerated spleen. He was moved to long-term injured reserve where he remained until Saturday when he was cleared by the team to practice days before the Golden Knights' bid to win a consecutive Stanley Cup.

"The first couple weeks were real tough," Stone said of his injury and the recovery process. "You can't do anything physical. You're kind of just sitting around waiting for it to heal. I think it's even harder because you start to feel better relatively quickly but you look at the scans, and you're nowhere close to healthy."

Getting Stone back following a lengthy injury layoff is something the Golden Knights experienced last season.

Stone, who already had one back surgery, needed a second procedure within a 13-month window that led to him being out of the lineup in mid-January. He returned prior to the Golden Knights' first-round series against the Winnipeg Jets.

Stone described the differences between what he went through last season compared to this season. He said recovering from a back surgery came with a distinct timeline whereas the varying timeline he was given for the spleen injury admittedly made him wonder if he'd even be ready for the start of an opening round series.

"I had some people telling me it was eight weeks. I had some people telling me it was six months," Stone said. "It was just a wait-and-see, see how the scans go. Obviously, fortunate to be able to get those scans as frequently as I can and I think last week, the last scan I did, I felt like I was moving in the right direction and getting close to playing. The last scan kind of confirmed it, and now I'm ready to go."

A run of persistent back problems that started in the 2021-22 season along with his multiple surgeries and the lacerated spleen has led to Stone playing in 55 percent -- or 136 of the Golden Knights' 246 regular-season games over the past three seasons.

Stone was also having some of the best performances of his career prior to being injured those seasons. He was averaging more than 0.80 points per game in the first two seasons while his 53 points in 56 games this season saw him average 0.95 points in what would have seen him finish with a career-high 78 points.

"I am not worried about individual stats at all," Stone said. "I play for this time of year. I am excited for this time of year. I'm excited with our team. We've added some good pieces to help us get there. Now, we're at full health and we're excited with what we have."

Stone's injury played a role in the Golden Knights being one of the most active teams at the NHL trade deadline. Moving Stone and his $9.5 million cap hit to LTIR made it possible for the club to acquire a top-nine forward in Anthony Mantha, a top-pairing defenseman in Noah Hanifin and the shock trade to get a top-six forward in Tomas Hertl.

Stone and Hertl, who've never played a game together, are slated to play together on a line centered by Chandler Stephenson.

Golden Knights coach Bruce Cassidy said the extensive time Stephenson and Stone have spent together means there's a proven cohesion. He said the real question lies with how Hertl will fit into the group. Hertl, who has played only six games with the Golden Knights, has spent time playing alongside Stephenson since recovering from knee surgery.

Cassidy said Stone, who also plays on the penalty kill and power play, won't enter Game 1 on a minutes restriction. But the plan is for Cassidy and his staff to monitor Stone's conditioning levels.

Last year, Stone logged more than 21 minutes of ice time in his first game back against the Jets. He would ultimately average a little less than 19 minutes per game while scoring 11 goals and 23 points in 22 games.

"His game will tell us, his shift length, himself -- he could control some of that," Cassidy said. "There is no restrictions going in. Could we put some on mid-game? That's something we'll decide as we go."