|High-scoring prospect Mark Stone is among a group of young forwards considered to have a shot at making the Senators roster when training camp gets underway in September (Ottawa Senators Hockey Club).
Mark Stone savoured every bite of the tastiest of appetizers. Oh, did he ever.
Now it's time to get in line for the main course.
"I want to be on this team come fall this year," said the 20-year-old Senators prospect, who's among a group of young forwards with the potential to crack the Ottawa roster out of training camp in September.
It's a thought that has rolled around the Winnipeg native's mind since the 2012 world juniors in Alberta, a high-profile tournament which — in a lot of eyes around the country — served as a coming out party for the 6-3, 203-pound forward. The dream became even more vivid in Stone's mind when he suited up for Game 5 of the Senators' first-round Stanley Cup playoff series against the Rangers at New York's fabled Madison Square Garden.
Though he'll admit to a serious case of nerves the first time he stepped up on the ice, Stone was anything but a bit player in what turned out to be his National Hockey League debut, providing a slick assist to set up Jason Spezza for the eventual game-winning goal.
Since that night, Stone's singular focus has been on making the full-time jump to the NHL.
"It was unbelievable," he said of that April evening on Broadway. "Just to play in the NHL at that age was something special for me. It put it into my mind that I want to be on this team next year. Once you get a taste, you don't want to give it back."
The thought of being this close to his biggest hockey dream?
"Very exciting," Stone, who took part in last week's Senators development camp, said with a smile. "I got a little bit of a glimpse of it in the playoffs and the fans here (at Scotiabank Place) are unbelievable. Just being in the rink in Games 3, 4 and 6 was pretty unbelievable. And to be able to play on the road at Madison Square Garden ... it doesn't get much better than that."
The Senators landed Stone with a sixth-round pick (178th overall) in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, but his rise has been nothing short of meteoric since then. He produced 78 goals and 229 points over his final two seasons with the Western Hockey League's Brandon Wheat Kings and is poised to make his professional hockey debut this fall.
While the biggest knock against Stone leading into his draft year was his skating, the Senators have worked diligently with him in that area, with Stone spending extra time in Ottawa with power skating coach Marc Power over the last two summers. Already, the dividends from that work are beginning to show.
"I've been working on skating ever since I got drafted," he said. "I had lots of adversity with it and Ottawa has given me all the tools to try to improve it. I really thank them for that and I'm trying to use all the opportunities I can.
"I'm starting to show confidence in my game. There are always tweaks every season that you can do to make yourself better. Until you're one of the top players in the league, you're not going to stop trying to improve and even at that time, you want to keep improving."
His NHL debut on one of the biggest and brightest stages in hockey showed Stone just how big a jump it will be when he moves to the next level, be it here in Ottawa or with the Binghamton Senators of the American Hockey League.
"Playing in the playoffs is a step up from the regular season here," said Stone. "I think I played nine minutes in that game and I was awfully tired after the game. The pace of play in that league is unbelievable and it's something I'm going to have to get used to if I want to stick around and have a long career.
"I still think it's going to be a process. Turning pro is a bit of a step and going from the American Hockey League to the National Hockey League is a big step. I want to be in tip-top shape coming into camp and we'll see where I am at that point."
As he works toward his biggest goal through the summer months, Stone doesn't need to look far for inspiration. A certain April night in New York figures to linger in his memory for quite some time yet.
"I think I remember most of it," he said of Game 5 in New York. "It was probably one of the best days of my life. Just the anticipation leading into the game was unbelievable. It's one of those special things I'll never forget."
While his first regular-season game in a Senators jersey might seem to pale in comparison, it is still a moment that Stone looks forward to every day.
"Being here with the intensity of the playoffs was pretty spectacular," he said. "The atmosphere in both buildings was pretty crazy and you can't top that. But if I'm here to start the regular season, I'll still be excited about it."