Throughout the season, tampabaylightning.com will periodically talk to Lightning players or coaches to get their first-hand account of a critical moment from the season or just what's on their mind currently.
In this installment, we hear from rookie defenseman Erik Cernak, who was recalled to Tampa Bay from AHL Syracuse on November 13 and has been a mainstay in the Lightning lineup ever since.
On February 2, in his 31st career NHL game at Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers, Cernak scored his first NHL goal by beating future Hockey Hall of Fame goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, setting off a raucous celebration on the Bolts' bench. Cernak's goal was a pivotal one too as it came early in the second period and gave the Lightning a 2-0 lead in a game they would hold on to win 3-2.
As told to tampabaylightning.com beat writer Bryan Burns, Cernak discusses how his first NHL goal came to be, what it meant to see the smiling faces on the bench from his teammates after scoring and how his life has changed after being told by Lightning management to find a permanent place to live in Tampa because he would be with the team for the duration of the season.
Video: TBL@NYR: Cernak wires wrister for first NHL goal
"I was waiting for my first goal over 30 games. I didn't really think too much about not being able to score. I came to Tampa just wanting to play my game all the time, be good for the team, help the team win games. I had a lot of chances for my first goal prior to the game against the Rangers, so I knew it was coming. Now that I've scored it, I'm glad I don't have to think about it anymore, just play my game and hopefully that goal won't be my last one.
Scoring was a really big deal for me. When I scored, I was really excited. I didn't know what to do. My celebration was really crazy. I mean, it was in New York, at Madison Square Garden and against Henrik Lundqvist. I think that's the best first NHL goal I could have scored. After the game I was talking with the guys and the coaching staff and they told me that was the best thing that could have happened. I think I was pretty lucky for that and it will be good memories for me.
On my scoring play, we break the puck from our zone and there was, I think, a 3-on-2. I thought I could beat their forward, so I jumped in the rush. It was a great play by Cally [Lightning forward Ryan Callahan], a great pass. When I got the puck, I knew I was going to shoot it. I saw open space under Lundqvist's glove. And I had time to shoot. Right after Cally passed it to me, I thought, 'This is my chance.'
Cally played a lot of games in New York for the Rangers. I think that was a really cool thing that he was the one to set up my first goal. I feel like that's going to be a good memory for me when I think back about that play. Cally went and picked up the puck out of the net for me. He gave it to the equipment managers, and they're getting it framed for me.
I didn't know how it was going to be when I scored my first NHL goal. Your first is a special one. Everybody was really excited for me. Everybody was happy. I saw so many smiles on faces on the bench. I was really happy, and, for sure, those guys help me a lot here, so you can see how close we are. Such a good group of guys, and I love it here. When I saw the pictures after the game from the celebration, everybody was smiling, everybody was happy with me. That was a good feeling.
After the game, it felt like everybody that I know from Slovakia, all my old coaching staffs, my old teammates, my friends, my family, everybody was texting me. Everybody from the U.S. was texting me too, from my old teams the Erie Otters and Syracuse Crunch and from everywhere. That was pretty crazy the day after reading all of those messages. I called my parents right after the game because they watch every game. The time change is six hours from here to Slovakia, so when the game starts at 7:30 here, it's 1:30 a.m. for them. But they try to watch every game. They were proud when I played my first NHL game because that was my goal and their goal too. They were doing everything for me when I was back home in Slovakia. They support me all the time. I'm really happy I have them and all my family. It's a great feeling when I know they're watching every game and they know what I'm doing on the ice.
My goal for this season was to make it to Tampa and stay with the team. I had a really good training camp. They sent me down and told me I have to keep working hard in Syracuse and that I would come up soon and it happened. Since the first day I got here, my thinking was I have to stay here, I have to play my game and be good every game and every practice. Not too long ago I found out I'm staying in Tampa for good, so it feels good to achieve my goal. I made it, and now I just have to keep working harder and harder. Management told me to start looking for a permanent place to live in Tampa, so I found a pretty nice spot on Harbour Island. I'm excited about that. I was in a hotel for about two-and-a-months, which is kind of hard because you have to eat out a lot and everything. Now, I'm in my place, my car is here, everything. During the bye week, I flew to Syracuse to get my car, which I had shipped back to Tampa, and I was able to pack up everything from Syracuse. When I was staying at the hotel, all of my teammates were nice, everybody was driving me everywhere if I needed something. They did laundry for me. We're all really close, and I'm happy we have this kind of group of guys here."