The first thought which came to mind late in Sunday's Game 3 between the San Jose Sharks and Vegas Golden Knights as Mark Stone potted his third goal of the game: What a trade.
Stone was a force in the biggest game of the season to date for the Golden Knights, leading his team to a 6-3 win and a 2-1 advantage in this best-of-seven series. His five-point performance was one of the most impressive games to date in VGK history and it shone a light on one of the most comprehensive players in the NHL. It also provided a look into exactly what Golden Knights management saw in a player which made them willing to part with an A prospect such as Erik Brannstrom in order to conclude the deal.
Vegas GM George McPhee's trade for Stone with the Ottawa Senators was the most impactful deal of the 2018-19 season. To gauge the weight of the trade and its subsequent value to Vegas one can simply ask the question: Where would Vegas be as a team without Stone?
They were a middle of the pack team before they got him and became a contender upon his arrival. And through three games against a Sharks team which many have picked to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup - Stone has been the best player in the series. On either side.
NHL Network posed the question last week: Which trade for a former member of the Ottawa Senators, Stone or Sharks defenseman Erik Karlsson, would turn out best?
The answer to such a question depends entirely on one's perspective and at the point in time when the query is posed. One morning it might be in San Jose's favor and the next the edge could go to the Golden Knights.
Vegas, for its part, has gone all in on Stone. They traded prospect Erik Brannstrom to Ottawa for the 26-year-old winger and then signed him to an eight-year, $76 million contract extension. The results turned in to date have gone beyond expectations as he leads the NHL in playoff goals and scoring with six goals and eight points.
Vegas players occupy the top three slots in playoff scoring through Sunday's games. Max Pacioretty is tied with Stone with eight points and Paul Stastny sits right back of them with six points.
The trio has combined for 22 of the 35 points Vegas skaters have put on the board in the series. They have scored six of the seven goals the Golden Knights have notched at even strength and they've scored all four VGK power play markers.
Pacioretty said of Stone following Sunday's win: "Stone with a great single effort," said Pacioretty. "You can't say enough good things about him tonight. He just completely took over the game."
McPhee's remaking of what was his second line last season, has been the most defining architecture of this series so far.
Pacioretty has been a bull in the series. Using speed and strength on the forecheck to create opportunity for his linemates while also showing his usual finishing elan.
Stastny had five points as well in Game 3 and says his line has found other-level chemistry.
"We read off each other well. A lot of times you don't have to second guess yourself, if you're F1 or F2 you know that guy who's behind you is going to be ready to jump on the play," explained the veteran center. "If you get caught down low in the offense of zone, for me it's going to be Pacioretty or Stoney the first guy back or vice versa. All of us could be the first guy back, all of us aren't afraid to forecheck. We all anticipate and try to play aggressive. We don't play on our heels and when we have everybody on the same line and playing the same way it makes it a lot easier."
McPhee turned the expansion franchise script into an entirely different kind of picture last season. He kept pushing last season when he signed Stastny to a free agent deal on July 1 and went further when he dealt for Pacioretty on the eve of training camp.
But there was something missing all season and the GM knew it. Landing Stone has elevated both Stastny and Pacioretty. And it gave Vegas two No. 1 lines.
Judging trades is more of a marathon than a sprint. And it will take years to determine the impact of the players which came in and the ones which left. But McPhee wanted to give his team a chance to win now. They certainly have that chance. And they can thank McPhee for his both his evaluation skills and his fortitude and willingness to walk out on a limb.