MONTREAL - Mark Stone says he wasn't even sure he'd make the Ottawa Senators' lineup in training camp and now he's a candidate for the NHL's rookie of the year award.
The 22-year-old freshman scored 35 points over the last 31 games of the regular season to lead the Senators to a playoff spot. He was rewarded for his efforts this week when he was made a finalist for the Calder Trophy along with Calgary's Johnny Gaudreau and Florida defenceman Aaron Ekblad.
"It's a great feeling," Stone said. "It's one of those things where you'll probably look back on it more during the summer than right now."
Stone and the Senators have been focused on trying to stay alive in their first-round NHL playoff series against the Canadiens. Ottawa needed a Game 5 win Friday night in Montreal to avoid elimination.
Stone's teammates tapped their sticks as he got the honour of leading the team stretch Friday during the game-day skate. The Canadiens opted to stand pat with their lineup, but the Senators made at least one change on their fourth line with Alex Chiasson returning on right wing after ceding his spot to Chris Neil the last two games.
"It gives us the best chance to win," said coach Dave Cameron. "Not that Neil didn't contribute, but he had a long layoff and (had) to come back and play two games.
"Now Chiasson is going to come back and give us a bit of a boost and probably a little more pace."
Stone has been playing on the top line with centre Kyle Turris and left-winger Clarke MacArthur after starting the season mainly on a Kid Line of youngsters. He worked his way into being the team's top scoring forward as the season progressed.
The Winnipeg native ended the season with 26 goals and finished tied with Gaudreau for the rookie lead with 64 points. Most of Stone's output happened in the second half of the season, after the Senators axed Paul MacLean and promoted Cameron to head coach on Dec. 9.
"Early on in the season I wasn't playing poorly, just maybe not getting the results I would like," said Stone, who spent most of the last two seasons with AHL Binghamton. "Once the team started having success I started to have more personal success."
Cameron said Stone took a step forward this season by opting to stay in Ottawa last summer to work on his conditioning and his foot speed.
"The two things on Stoner were: was he quick enough with his feet?" the coach said. "He put the work in and that compensated for it.
"The other thing was that he went through a couple of really unfortunate injuries and he wasn't able to get into that rhythm that allows you to establish yourself as a full-time NHL player."