OTTAWA -- There are several key reasons the Ottawa Senators have been one of the great stories in the NHL for the past couple months.
Backed by goaltender Andrew Hammond, "The Hamburglar," they have been on a potentially record-setting roll as they try to overcome a 14-point deficit on Feb. 10 and earn a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
That would be the biggest deficit a team has overcome since the NHL went to an Eastern-Western conference format in 1993-94.
Hammond is 16-1-1 as a starter in the NHL, and the Senators have pulled to within three points of the Detroit Red Wings and the Boston Bruins for third place in the Atlantic Division.
One of those three teams is also likely to earn the second wild card from the Eastern Conference.
Then there's defenseman Erik Karlsson, who has forced himself into consideration for the Norris Trophy. He has been one of the League's hottest offensive players (27 points in his past 26 games) and his defensive game has been the best it's been since he broke into the League six seasons ago.
Right Wing - OTT
GOALS: 20 | ASST: 36 | PTS: 56
SOG: 135 | +/-: 15
Perhaps slightly overshadowed in the Senators surge has been the contribution of a number of young players, and leading the way has been rookie wing Mark Stone
The 22-year-old, selected by Ottawa in the sixth round of the 2010 NHL Draft (No. 178), is third on the Senators in scoring with 56 points. He's played most of the time on the top line with center Kyle Turris.(57 points, second to Karlsson's 62).
Stone scored his 20th goal of the season in a 2-1 overtime win Thursday against the Tampa Bay Lightning and set up defenseman Patrick Wiercioch for the winner.
That comes after scoring the shootout winner Tuesday against the Detroit Red Wings, a game when Stone was the best player on the ice.
"I think we felt very strongly that he was going to be a good player," Senators general manager Bryan Murray said. "He showed some real good signs. He's got real good hockey sense. He's got great hands. We knew that.
"The issue with Mark was his skating a little bit. I think he made a commitment last summer to stay in Ottawa and get stronger. To do more skating and put time into it, and that's been a big difference in his game, there's no doubt about that."
After two 15-goal seasons with the Binghamton Senators of the American Hockey League, Stone's attention to his skating has been paying off. He's taken a huge stride forward this season.
Stone's strengths are always going to be his head and hands. As Murray pointed out, he's not the strongest skater, but those two other qualities make up for it. They are the reasons why he is tied for the League lead in takeaways with John Tavares of the New York Islanders with 91 after the games Thursday.
Turris, asked what's impressed him about his linemate, said, "How smart he is. I feel like we like to work the give and go game and he's so smart at finding seams and holes to get the puck through as well as putting himself in a position where it's easy to make a pass to him.
"His hockey sense is really advanced. Little things, stripping guys of pucks. He's intense. He's good defensively. He's a very good all-round hockey player."
That's a good point about finding seams. That's what Stone did against the Lightning, threading a pass across the ice to Wiercioch in the far circle, where the defenseman scored.
Stone is remarkably adept at taking the puck away from opponents. He reads the play, anticipates where an opponent is going and gets himself in position. A flick of his stick and the puck has changed hands.
"I've always been good at it," Stone said of the takeaways. "I was never a great skater and I kind of learned little tricks to make up for that. Takeaways was one of them. I feel like I read the play pretty well. I look to see what they're guy is going to do and try and make the steal."
Like Karlsson, who has been a latecomer to the Norris conversation, Stone has forced himself into the League's Calder Trophy picture.
Stone has 40 points in 42 games since Dec. 29. He's three points behind Filip Forsberg of the Nashville Predators and five behind leading rooke scorer Johnny Gaudreau of the Calgary Flames. In that same timeframe, Gaudreau has 30 points and Forsberg has 25.
"He's very savvy," Turris said. "I feel like he's grown, and when most rookies start to taper off because of the 82-game season and it's difficult to sustain a good pace, he's revved it up, and it's been at the right time to help our team."
Senators coach Dave Cameron said, "He's been good for a long time. He's been good right from the get go, and he's really started getting rewarded for it in the last while.
"Just real good hockey IQ, sees the ice, unbelievable stick. Wants the puck, wants to be a difference-maker. Whatever line he's been on has been real good. He's driving us a little bit."
On a retooling team, there was opportunity for young players including Stone, forwards Mike Hoffman, Mika Zibanejad, Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Curtis Lazar, and defensemen Cody Ceci, Patrick Wiercioch and Mark Borowiecki.
Stone has come a long way in a short time.
"Early in the season I was more worried about being in the League," he said. "I had only played like 20 games before coming in here. As the season went on, my role increased and that's when I started to put pressure on myself to produce in certain roles. It's just one of those things that now I'm in the top six, it's just a given that I know I have to produce on a night-to-night basis."
During Ottawa's great run in February and March, the young players have had the chance to get valuable experience in the heat of what has been an unexpected playoff race.
"This last month and a half has been outstanding for them," Murray said. "I think the growth of every one of our kids will benefit from this, there's no question. There is pressure you have to face every night. These are real growing experiences for them. Long term, you never take anything for granted, but you got to hope and think this is going to be a real plus for them."