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Mark Stone knows he has to ‘be better’ for Knights in playoffs

Mark Stone wants to see 6-foot-6 Nic Hague hit bombs on the softball field.

“That tall, lanky guy,” Stone said. “I feel like he’s either going to ‘Wow’ me or is just going to be brutally awkward and has never played before.”

Either works. The awkward part would be better for all sorts of reasons.

Stone as the Golden Knights captain will join several teammates as part of the Battle for Las Vegas charity softball game on Saturday night at Las Vegas Ballpark.

The event is hosted by Knights forward Reilly Smith and matches his hockey brethren against a team led by former Raiders great Marcus Allen and past and present players of the NFL franchise.

You won’t have to point Stone in the direction of any field. He worked at a softball complex one summer when growing up in Winnipeg as part of the maintenance crew. Learned how to pack a diamond. Learned how to drag a field.

“I also played some baseball and softball and was good in the outfield — I’m pretty good at tracking balls,” Stone said. “A little shaky in the infield.”

Saturday will be as much therapy in moving forward for Stone as it is entertainment.

Yeah. He hasn’t come close to getting over it.

“I don’t think,” he said, “you ever really do.”

Montreal nightmares

He went on vacation following the team’s loss to Montreal in a Stanley Cup semifinal and didn’t see much of Tampa Bay winning its second straight championship by eliminating the Canadiens in five games. Stone caught some of Game 4.

“It made you realize how good Tampa Bay was and yet also disappointed that we didn’t get a crack at them in back-to-back years,” he said. “I think we would have matched up well.”

The list of teams that would lose their collected edges hundreds of times over to be in a similar position as the Knights is endless. Three conference finals in four seasons. Already a trip to the Stanley Cup Final. A resume of outstanding results since the puck first dropped on the franchise in 2017.

But losing to Montreal hurt perhaps as much as any playoff series. Maybe even more than the Cody Eakin five-minute major in Game 7 at San Jose in 2019. Maybe even more than that lunacy.

The Sharks finished ahead of the Knights in the Pacific Division that season. That they won the series wasn’t a surprise, regardless of those four-goals-in-four-minutes by San Jose.

Falling to Washington in a Stanley Cup Final was also rough, but the Knights as an expansion team had already earned a share of history.

Montreal had the league’s 18th-best record and lost eight more games than it won over a condensed schedule. Spin its playoff success if you must, but that’s a brutal regular season.

It was more than opportunity lost for the Knights. It was a massive failure as a prohibitive favorite.

It was also an especially forgettable six games for the Knights’ best player. Stone was missing in action. A non-factor.

A finalist for the Selke Trophy, he finished with no points in the series. The right wing managed just seven shots on goal and played to a minus-two at five-on-five.

He is almost always his harshest critic. Almost. “My dad can be pretty harsh at times,” Stone said.

“It’s a tough question because I think everyone wants to say yes to that, right? But you can’t rag on yourself day in and day out. You have to try and stay even-keel through the ups and downs.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself to help us beat Montreal. I wanted to contribute more. I wasn’t able to do so. In my head, if I had, we would have been playing in the Stanley Cup Final. So you look to get better every day, because you can get weeded out of this league pretty quickly.”

Captain’s role

He was the consummate choice to serve as the organization’s first captain. The one who was wanted and needed. I’m also not saying that because he professionally handled all media obligations such a role demands and never once told any of us — no matter how inane the question — to take our Zooms and shove it.

“I played in the same market (of Ottawa) for six years and had my faced plastered on television for three months leading up to the trade deadline (in 2019),” Stone said. “That part doesn’t bother me.”

He has a balance about him. Incredibly competitive. Goal celebrations made for hilarious memes. Immeasurably attentive when giving teammates and opponents credit.

And yet Stone understands that the best leaders are also the most levelheaded in a room.

So he talks about culture. About how it was built by those players still remaining from the expansion season. About using the Montreal series as motivation to take another step next season.

“The ultimate goal is to win the Stanley Cup and we didn’t do it,” Stone said. “It’s a harsh reality. I’m 29 and have never been to the finals. I have to be better and have more playoff success.

“I look back and wish I could have done more to push us over the top. I’ll do everything I can to get better and help this team reach that goal.”

Hague bombs

Michael Stone, Mark’s brother, is a free-agent NHL defenseman who still plays in competitive softball leagues during the offseason. He was the better baseball player of the two growing up and might receive a text from little brother in search of some tips before first pitch Saturday.

“I’m excited for the game,” Mark Stone said. “Reilly does such an incredible job putting this on and raising a lot of money for great causes.”

Stone went to a local batting cage this week to evaluate his swing and will wait until after Friday’s practice to determine whether to take part in the event’s Home Run Derby. He just hopes someone else does.

“I’m really hoping Hague is a player because I want to see the big man hitting home runs,” he said. “And if I struggle in the game, I can always help the boys out on the maintenance crew.”

Packing a diamond. Dragging a field.

All the while, not forgetting what happened and determined not to repeat it.

Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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