TAMPA -- On Oct. 4, 2008, the Tampa Bay Lightning opened their season against the New York Rangers in the Czech Republic. Mike Smith was in the net for the Lightning, Barry Melrose was behind the bench, and up in the stands, 18-year-old Radko Gudas was watching his first National Hockey League game.
Much has changed for the Lightning over four-plus years, and much has changed for Gudas, too -- he's not sitting in the stands anymore, he's sitting in the Lightning locker room, preparing to play his fourth game as an NHL defenseman Monday against the Philadelphia Flyers (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN, RDS).
"It was amazing," Gudas said of watching that first game in Prague. "It was pretty exciting. I never dreamed about playing here at the time, but then I got drafted by Tampa Bay [third round in 2010] and it was a nice surprise."
Defense - TBL
GOALS: 0 | ASST: 0 | PTS: 0
SOG: 4 | +/-: 0
Gudas has proven to be a nice surprise for the Lightning, too. Always known for his hard checks, he is winning praise for his composure with the puck and passing ability, too. He's also winning ice time, skating 20:03 Saturday in the Lightning's defeat of the Carolina Hurricanes.
"Everybody loves the way he handles the puck and passes, but that's not what he is -- he's a Kasparaitis." Lightning coach Guy Boucher said, comparing Gudas to retired defenseman Darius Kasparaitis. "He's one of those guys that hits you clean, but extremely hard.
"He hits so hard and his timing is right on. I didn't want him to go out there and extend himself trying to hit guys just to impress us. We wanted him to play a simple game and he's been doing that. He's doing it all right now."
Even though he is winning points for his calmness, Gudas still is feeling the butterflies inside.
"Trust me, I am feeling nervous, even if it does not show," he said. "It's a weird nervousness. I feel like I can make some plays and I can play here. I can play with this speed, but it's still the NHL and I'm only here three games, so it is still something I have to be nervous about."
Gudas is skating with confidence, which is to be expected when he is getting strong praise from his coach.
"He's been terrific," Boucher said. "We knew he was probably ready. We just needed to put him on the ice and see how close he is, and he's not just close, he was probably our best defenseman against the New York Islanders [in his second game], and almost our best defenseman in his first game in the NHL. He's been doing it all right now."
Getting singled out as the team's best defenseman puts Gudas ahead of Sami Salo, Matthew Carle, Eric Brewer and Victor Hedman. That's some pretty heady competition for a 22-year-old rookie.
"I was really surprised he said something like that," Gudas said. "I felt really good on the ice and I'm glad they think of me like that. I'm trying to play my best game and trying to help my team as much as I can, and it's working so far."