Mark Stone [600x600]
Mark Stone [600x600] (Credit: USA Today Sports)

The not-a-no-ball to Kohli Starc s beauty and a Bumrah toe-crusher

DALLAS -- Any questions about how Mark Stone would handle his first game in three months were quickly answered Monday night in the Vegas Golden Knights' 4-3 win over the Dallas Stars in Game 1 of the Western Conference quarterfinals.

How much time did Stone need before finding the type of comfort that allowed him to carve his place in an opening-round playoff game?

Try less than 90 seconds.

Stars forward Sam Steel was given a two-minute minor for high-sticking just 26 seconds into the first period. That created an opportunity for the Golden Knights power-play unit, which parlayed the Stars' misfortune into a goal scored by Stone.

Within a matter of seconds, Golden Knights center Jack Eichel won a faceoff with the puck going back to Noah Hanifin at the point. Hanifin quickly threw the puck on net with Stone, who was at the net front, getting his stick on the puck for a 1-0 lead with 18:37 remaining in the first period.

"I was nervous. I think I'd probably be a little nervous if I played in all 82 games, right? It's the playoffs," Stone said. "This is what you play for, and once the game gets going, you realize why you play and why it's so much fun to be out there."

Stone's opening goal was only the start to a night that saw him get booed at every moment. The context for why Stone -- who had been out of the lineup since Feb. 20 due to a lacerated spleen -- was perpetually booed goes back to his injury and what the Golden Knights did to compensate for his absence. 

Stone's lacerated spleen was the latest setback in what had been three injury-plagued seasons. He experienced back issues in 2021-22 then had surgery prior to the start of the 2022-23 season. He required another back surgery during that campaign, and it led to him being moved to long-term injured reserve.

Sending Stone and his $9.5 million cap hit to LTIR provided the Golden Knights the added flexibility to acquire Ivan Barbashev and Teddy Blueger at last year's trade deadline, reinforcing a roster that then got Stone back for the playoffs. 

Because there are no salary cap restrictions in the playoffs, the Golden Knights were able to add Stone to their active roster without a corresponding financial move.

Fast forward to this season: Moving Stone to LTIR created the space for the Golden Knights to acquire Anthony Mantha, Tomas Hertl and Hanifin at the trade deadline, with the idea that Stone could return at some point in the playoffs.

His return Monday was accompanied by a chorus of boos every time Stone touched the puck inside sold-out American Airlines Center. The need to boo Stone was so strong that he was booed while doing an intermission interview with ESPN after the first period.

Golden Knights forward and reigning Calder Trophy winner Jonathan Marchessault cracked a smile when asked about Stone's performance amid the boos.

"I loved it," Marchessault said. "I wouldn't be more happy for any guy than him. He's been going through a lot of adversity in the last few years, and the fact he comes back and he gets big goals like that, it's unbelievable to have a guy like that on your team and especially as your leader."

Marchessault scored more than six minutes later to give the Golden Knights a 2-0 lead before Stars captain Jamie Benn cut the deficit to 2-1 with less than four minutes remaining in the first.

The Golden Knights responded less than two minutes later when Hertl scored a power play goal on an assist from Hanifin -- both of whom will be forever linked to Stone.

Dallas would score to cut the lead to 3-2 late in the first, with Vegas pushing it to 4-2 off a Brayden McNabb goal a little more than a minute into the second period.

Being in a two-goal hole forced the Stars to become more aggressive in the offensive zone. Natural Stat Trick's metrics revealed that the Stars' shot-share was 57% between the second and third periods in 5-on-5 play.

Even with possession and the fact they doubled the Golden Knights in shots, the Stars struggled to score before Mason Marchment's long-distance offering slipped past Logan Thompson with 11:46 left in the third.

It took what was a stale American Airlines Center and turned it into an actively engaged atmosphere that was invested in whatever the Stars were doing to get a game-tying goal.

Attempting to get that score proved to be a challenge for several reasons.

Among those reasons? Stone. 

Even with the goal he scored, his efforts in the defensive zone proved just as crucial. Stone, who finished with more than 17 minutes in ice time, logged three shifts over the final eight minutes to help the Golden Knights close out Game 1.

"LT wants that goal back, but he bailed us out in the second period and really calmed the game for us," Stone said of Thompson. "I think that last five minutes, yeah, they're throwing pucks at the net. But he's able to calm the game, get some good covers for us.

"I thought our defense and our goaltending along with our centermen and our wingers as a five-, six-man unit did a good job of calming the game down and getting us to the finish line."