OTTAWA â€” When it matters most, Mark Stone finds a way to elevate his game.
The Ottawa Senators forward seems to thrive later in the season when games become more important and teams start focusing on making their run to the playoffs. Stone scored the winning goal in Thursday night's 3-2 victory over Dallas and has three goals and two assists since the all-star break.
"The game tightens up a bit and maybe that's a strength for me," he said. "Sometimes at the start of the year it's not my type of game so when they get down to the nitty-gritty I can maybe get a little bit more of it."
While the 24-year-old plays well all season, he seems to shine following the all-star game.
Over the past three seasons, he's averaged 0.68 points per game prior the all-star contest (38 goals, 56 assists in 138 games). But in 68 games after the all-star break, he's averaging 1.04 points per contest (30 goals, 41 assists).
Stone, for one, was surprised to learn of the increase.
"For three years I've tried to be as consistent as possible," he said. "As a younger guy, you try to grow in the league and find ways to improve your game and I'm still looking to do that.
"I want to be relied upon, not only on the ice, but off it, and kind of be someone younger guys can come to."
Stone is also adept at stripping the puck, having registered a league-high 70 takeaways.
"It's anticipation and reading the play," said Stone. "The way the game is going it's very physical and many players are very unexpecting now.
"If you can have that anticipation and read the play really well to create offence, it's a little thing that can definitely help."
Ottawa head coach Guy Boucher said Stone, a 2010 sixth-round pick, reminds him of Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby.
"When I coached Crosby it was the same," said Boucher. "Those guys, they look this way and all of a sudden it's right on your stick and you're all surprised.
"Those are the high-end minds, the high-end hockey IQs that you don't see a lot of, even at the NHL level. (Stone) has definitely got that high-end hockey IQ."
Stone's linemates also benefit from his play. Zack Smith played much of the second half of last season alongside Stone and scored 16 of his career-high 25 goals after the all-star break.
"He seems possessed at times, especially the way he can strip pucks," said Smith. "When you're playing with a guy you know can get the puck at any point . . . then you're always ready and you expect to get the puck."
The return of goalie Craig Anderson continues to be a waiting game for Ottawa. He resumed practising last week after missing nearly two months to be with his wife as she underwent cancer treatment but hasn't seen game action yet.
Boucher said while Anderson looks strong in practice, the goaltender will ultimately decide when he'll play.
"Right now it's for him to tell us if mentally he's ready to go," said Boucher. "It's a lot more about feeling prepared and making sure he's seen enough situations to feel he can go in a game."
Should Anderson not feel ready to play Saturday when Ottawa hosts the New York Islanders, Mike Condon will get the start.
NOTES: Boucher won't make a final decision on his lineup versus the Islanders until Saturday morning. He's considering going with seven defencemen and 11 forwards with some players under the weather . . . New York's Shane Prince returns to Ottawa for the first time since being dealt to the Islanders last February.
Lisa Wallace, The Canadian Press