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By coincidence the, Rise Of February 10, 2010 4:04 AM
It's no coincidence the rise of the Calgary Hitmen back into the top echelon of the Western Hockey League has come in lock step with the improved performance of key veterans.
One of the most important leaders on the squad, captain Michael Stone, had assists in the past two games going into Tuesday night's game in Swift Current -- a 6-1 Hitmen triumph over the Broncos -- and is playing a bruising style of stay-home defence when he's not pinching up.
But in late December through much of January, as the team started to slide in the standings and then fell off the national top-10 rankings, Stone was struggling.
"I hit just a little bit of a plateau for awhile I guess you could say," says Stone, 19. "My play has been . . . on and off."
The six-foot -four, 207-pound Stone has been a versatile defender, able to deliver bone-crushing checks, break up rushes and pinch up for a point shot, sometimes all in one shift. He has 15 goals and 33 assists this season, but is minus-7.
Last year, Stone finished with 61 points and was plus-43 in the regular season.
Stone says coach Mike Williamson has helped him come out of his rut.
"We watched a lot of video, he just showed me what I'm not doing and what I need to be doing," says Stone. "He wasn't riding me, just trying to get me working harder and doing the right things.(As the captain), I've got to get myself playing well and when things aren't going I need to be contributing in other ways to help the team."
With the improved play of Stone, as well as rock-solid goaltending by Martin Jones, the Hitmen seem to be back i-n charge of their own des tiny. They came out of the w-eekend on top of the Cen tral Division and second in the Eastern Conference after winning four straight.
"Stone's a guy who's going to play a ton of minutes, so for us to be at our best, he's going to be playing against other team's top players on a regular basis," says Williamson. "He has to be strong defensively and he's a big part of our offence as well with the way he can shoot and quarterback the power play.
"We have to have everybody making sure they're at the top of their game, but our leaders and key players are the ones who get that train moving. Michael Stone, Ian Schultz, Brandon Kozun, along with some others, are guys who we've asked to fill that leadership role and it's very important that they lead by example."
NOTE: Jones was named Canadian Hockey League goaltender of the week through Sunday. He had three wins, with a shutout, and a goals-against average of 0.670 and a save percentage of .978. The Hitmen blanked the Medicine Hat Tigers 2-0 Sunday for Jones' WHL-leading fifth shutout of the season.
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