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Lightning's Cedric Paquette continues to prove his worth

by Arpon Basu / Tampa Bay Lightning

CHICAGO -- Brian Boyle had no idea who Cedric Paquette was when the Tampa Bay Lightning opened training camp last September.

Boyle signed with the Lightning as an unrestricted free agent after having helped the New York Rangers reach the Stanley Cup Final three months earlier, and was trying to ease his way into his first camp with his new team.

Paquette wouldn't let him.

The rookie forward's attempt to earn a roster spot was a thorn in Boyle's side throughout camp, and even though Paquette ended up getting cut, he left an impression.

"I was like, 'Who the hell is this kid?' I didn't know him," Boyle said. "Since then, he's been a huge asset for our team. I get to [penalty] kill with him. He's learned so much, he's come so far this year."

Many hockey fans might have been like Boyle was in training camp entering the Stanley Cup Final. It would have been difficult to imagine that three games into the best-of-7 series Paquette would have been part of the central storyline of every game.

Yet, here we are.

Paquette made his mark in a third game in a row Monday by scoring the winning goal at 16:49 of the third period off a brilliant setup from defenseman Victor Hedman for a 3-2 victory that allowed the Lightning to take a 2-1 series lead heading into Game 4 at United Center on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

In Game 1, the story was about how coach Jon Cooper, who had cut him eight months earlier, was using Paquette in a shutdown role against the Blackhawks' top line of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad.

In Game 2, Paquette had the same role and scored the opening goal of the game after a great toe-drag move to get around Saad and threading a quick wrist shot against the grain to the far side of the net to beat Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford through a crowd.

Now, this.

If people didn't know who Paquette was before, they certainly do now.

"I can't say enough, honestly. He's been stepping up these three games," said Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman, who often played behind Paquette's line against the Toews line. "I don't think anybody saw that coming and it's really fun to watch. We knew he was a big player for us, really solid defensively and going up against the best centreman in the League and doing that job unbelievably well. It's really fun to see."

Paquette could not have seen this coming when he was sent to the Syracuse Crunch of the American Hockey League coming out of training camp, but he made sure his stay there would not be very long. Paquette had seven points in five games and was called right back up to the Lightning, where he has stayed ever since.

Still, the journey from AHL call up to becoming the Stanley Cup Final's unlikeliest hero remains a very long one.

"I really couldn't have predicted that," Paquette said. "I was just trying to make the team and it didn't happen. I went down, I dominated I can say, it went well, my two-way game was there. Jon watched those games and was happy with my performance.

"Since the start of the year I've tried to make a bigger name for myself. I've tried not to do too much, focus on the little details, and since the start of this series it's been going really well."

The relationship between Boyle and Paquette may not have gotten off to a great start, but it has grown ever since Paquette was called back up the Lightning in late October, with Boyle becoming somewhat of a mentor for the rookie. Everyone will obviously point to the winning goal, but Boyle pointed to a play Paquette made to block a Brent Seabrook slap shot when the Blackhawks were pushing to tie the game with over a minute to play as being just as big.

"You see Seabrook winding up and you're about 25 feet away, it's a little easier to block when you're 10 feet away," Boyle said. "He's winding up and he stands right in there and eats it right after he scores a big goal for us. I mean, that sums it up in about two minutes time what kind of player he is."

And Paquette knows it.

"Obviously scoring the winning goal is really special, every hockey player dreams of that and it's the same for me, but blocking shots is my job," he said. "Even though I scored a goal, I'm not going to change my role on this team. I'm not going to score 50 goals next year. I'm still there to block shots late in games."

No, Paquette will probably not score 50 goals next season, but on a team with major star power, he has managed to put his stamp on this series.

If he keeps it up, it may finish with his name being stamped on the Stanley Cup.

No one will be asking who he is if that happens.

Author: Arpon Basu | Managing Editor

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