When looking for a hero on the Tampa Bay Lightning roster, most would expect Steven Stamkos’ name to be at the forefront. Tyler Johnson also would garner consideration, as would linemates Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat.
Ryan Callahan, Valtteri Filppula and Alex Killorn would not surprise many if they managed to come up with a big goal. Cedric Paquette, on the other hand, probably wouldn’t be on the tips of very many people’s tongues.
The few that would pick Paquette looked like geniuses after Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final as the 21-year-old stunned the United Center crowd, snapping a tie with 3:11 remaining in the third period to lift Tampa Bay to a 3-2 victory and a 2-1 lead in the series. It was the second goal in two games for Paquette, who produced just one in his first 19 contests this postseason.
Brandon Saad scored at 4:14 of the third period to give the Chicago Blackhawks a 2-1 edge, but the Lightning’s Triplets line answered 13 seconds later, with Palat getting the puck past Corey Crawford for the equalizer. With overtime seeming to be in the cards, Paquette made sure no extra time was needed for Tampa Bay to pull within two wins of the second championship in franchise history.
Defenseman Victor Hedman received a backhand pass from Callahan as he was exiting his own zone and skated down the middle of the ice before cutting to his left. From just below the faceoff circle, Hedman fired the puck in front to Paquette, who got in front of unsuspecting Chicago defenseman Kyle Cumiskey and chipped a shot past Crawford from the doorstep.
Paquette credited Hedman for making the chance to be the hero happen.
“I just went to the net, he gave it to me,” Paquette told the LA Times. “I waited until the goalie couldn’t see the puck. I think I had the opening.”
Paquette was called upon by coach Jon Cooper to try to keep Jonathan Toews in check in the series, a difficult task that he has performed admirably thus far, limiting the Blackhawks captain to one assist over the first three games. Scoring goals of any kind himself has been an added bonus.
After Tampa Bay dropped a 2-1 decision in the opener, Paquette ended his 13-game drought by opening the scoring in Game 2. It was his first goal, and point, since Game 6 of his team’s first-round series against the Detroit Red Wings.
Paquette’s tally in Game 3 was the first playoff game-winner of his NHL career. It undoubtedly was the biggest goal of his life thus far, as it rendered him nearly speechless after the contest.
“I don’t seem to feel anything right now,” he told Le Journal de Montreal. “I do not know how to describe my feelings.”
Paquette likely had the same reaction in 2012, when he was selected by Tampa Bay in the fourth round of the draft. He remained in juniors for a season before jumping to the American Hockey League, where he registered 20 goals and 24 assists in 70 games with the Syracuse Crunch in 2013-14.
The center joined the Lightning for their final two regular-season contests, notching one assist, before setting up two goals in four playoff games. Paquette began this campaign with the Crunch and recorded four tallies and three assists in five contests before landing in Tampa Bay for good.
He appeared in 64 games as a rookie and contributed 19 points, including 12 goals. Three of those tallies were game-winners, with two coming in back-to-back home victories over Detroit and the Columbus Blue Jackets on January 29 and 31, respectively.
While those were important goals, they were nowhere near the level of the one he scored against Chicago in Game 3. And if Paquette can continue to shut down Toews and help the Lightning capture the Stanley Cup, he’s certain to receive a hero’s welcome in the Sunshine State.