Stone brings big presence to Hitmen D vs. Wheaties
By John Down, Calgary Herald
April 11, 2009 8:27 AM
Some will argue he's one of the top shutdown defencemen, others will tell you he's a gun on the offence.
Either way, Michael Stone brings a big package to the Calgary Hitmen blueline.
"Some people think I'm an offensive guy, some don't," smiled the 18-year-old, 2008 third-round draft choice of the Phoenix Coyotes, following an hour-long practice Friday morning at Erin Woods East Twin Arenas. "I like to see myself as an offensive guy, but I don't think I lack anything in the defensive aspect, either.
"I think I do all right on both sides."
The Winnipeg-born Stone has stepped up his game each season with the Hitmen, racing from a two-goal, 20-point rookie campaign in 2006-07 to 19 goals and 61 points this season. Through the first eight playoff games, he has four assists and has a league-wide top five ranking of plus-12.
"Every year, he gets better," said head coach Dave Lowry. "Stronger, quicker and, positionally, he's very, very good. A lot of that stuff goes unnoticed when you're in a good spot and don't get beat.
"He's also a big guy and covers a lot of ice."
Stone and his mates, who swept aside Edmonton and Lethbridge in the first two rounds of the Western Hockey League playoffs, are now be-ginning the steady buildup toward a best-of-seven Eastern Conference final against the Brandon Wheat Kings, who finished off the Medicine Hat Tigers in four games Friday night.
In the overall scope of things, it'll be the No. 1-ranked Hitmen against the No. 3-ranked Wheaties for the right to play the Western Conference cham-pions and an eventual ticket to next month's Memorial Cup at Rimouski, Que. Dates for the Brandon series have yet to be determined, but it's unlikely it'll open at the Pengrowth Saddledome before Thursday.
That means Stone and Co. will be dealing with another lengthy layoff since they ushered Lethbridge to the sidelines Wednesday night.
"I think we learned a lot from the last layoff," said Lowry. "Obviously this time of the year, rest becomes critical, and we have to make sure we keep our eye on that and make sure everyone is healthy."
If anything can be taken from the series against Lethbridge, it's that the Hitmen played sound hockey from the start, steadily built momentum and finished with a huge bang, blanking the Hurricanes 6-0 in the finale.
But the Wheaties hold the promise of bringing even more to the plate offensively than either Edmonton or Lethbridge. It is a given Brandon can send out three explosive lines.
"We know they're playing well because they're not losing any games, either," said Stone, pointing out the Wheaties also swept the Kootenay Ice to open the playoffs. "It'll be a tough series, not only with the travel, but because we know they're going to be coming out flying.
"They get their scoring from a number. . . . I thought we did a pretty good job against Lethbridge, keeping their top guys off the scoresheet, so we'll have to continue to do that, but also take into consideration the secondary scoring that Brandon has."
The Hitmen have allowed just seven goals, giving up more than one just once and registering two shutouts, while goalie Martin Jones has rung up a 0.85 goals-against average. Lowry, being from the old school, doesn't plan on changing much, if anything, as his team approaches this next round.
"Brandon thrives on turnovers, they have dynamic forwards and we're aware of that," he said. "Our game plan isn't to change. . . . It's all about managing the ice and we have to make sure we continue to pay very close attention to that."
Brandon was one of just four teams to defeat the Hitmen at the Saddledome this season, a wild 7-6 decision in overtime. The Hitmen won the other three games, including 2-1 and 4-2 decisions in the Wheat City.
While Stone doesn't see the Wheaties as being as big and as physical as some previous teams, he expects sparks to fly not only offensively, but physically.
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