NEW YORK – The Lightning's first goal Friday was vintage Cedric Paquette.
The 2014-15 version.
Paquette, a pest when he's at his best, darted into the corner to keep a puck alive in the Rangers' zone early in the second period. Then he drove to the net, through traffic, and gave two whacks at the puck before scoring the tying goal in what became a 7-3 Lightning win.
It was a monster performance for Paquette, who had two goals, an assist, a team-high six shots and five hits. And he won 53 percent of his faceoffs. Often a healthy scratch the past month with the emergence of rookie Anthony Cirelli, Paquette pounced on an opportunity with Ryan Callahan and Adam Erne sidelined with injuries.
Paquette, who can be a restricted free agent this summer, looked like a player determined to scrap his way back into the lineup.
"It's been a tough spot for him because he's been out a few times (with injuries)," coach Jon Cooper said. "But these guys want to play in the playoffs, and a couple injuries happen, and all of a sudden the doors open. He's got to take advantage of it, and that's what he's been doing."
Paquette says this has been a tough season. For the past few years he has struggled to stay healthy. He missed 13 games from mid October to mid November this season with an upper-body injury. But now that he has been healthy, Cirelli played his way into Paquette's bottom six-role.
But there's still a value in Paquette, especially come playoff time, in matchups against physical teams such as Nashville (Sunday) and Boston (Tuesday). There's a reason Paquette was part of a key shutdown line with Valtteri Filppula and Ryan Callahan in the 2014-15 Stanley Cup final run.
"We've seen what he can do in the playoff runs," captain Steven Stamkos said. "He's a very physical guy. And he's got the offensive skill set where he can pitch in with goals and nice plays. I remember our Stanley Cup run, he was great. It's been a tough year in terms of him having to sit out and stay mentally prepared. But I thought he did a great job (Friday) and got rewarded."
With Callahan (upper body) sidelined the past five games and Erne (lower body) out indefinitely, Paquette will get a chance to play regularly. His line with Cory Conacher and Chris Kunitz provided instant energy in Thursday's 4-2 loss in Boston. Cooper believed they were "arguably our best line" in Friday's win.
"I think I just needed to play harder," Paquette said. "More hits, more physical and more offense. When our fourth line is scoring goals, we're
going to be tough to beat, for sure."