TAMPA — Pardon Mikhail Sergachev if he isn't so good at one of hockey's greatest traditions. After all, growing a Stanley Cup playoff beard isn't easy when you're still just a teenager.
As he stood in the Lightning locker room Saturday evening with a hood covering his head, it was clear that not all parts of his cheek got the memo that it's supposed to grow hair.
Other than that, the 19-year-old Lightning defenseman has this playoff thing down pat.
"He's playing like he has been in the league a long, long time," fellow Russian and Lightning teammate Nikita Kucherov said. "Never nervous. Always patient. When he has the puck on his stick, you know something is going to happen."
Oh, something happened Saturday. Sergachev became the youngest Lightning player to score a playoff goal — the opening tally in Tampa Bay's 3-1 victory in the clinching Game 5 of the opening-round series against the Devils.
A year ago at this time, no one could have imagined Sergachev playing hero for the Lightning. Not even Sergachev. Especially not Sergachev.
"I think a year ago," Sergachev said, "I was playing in the playoffs in juniors. I wasn't thinking of this, no."
Times columnist Tom Jones and Roger Mooney break down the Lighting’s series-clinching 3-1 victory over New Jersey Saturday at Amalie Arena. Post your questions here and they’ll answer them.Posted by Tampa Bay Times - Sports on Saturday, April 21, 2018
Back then, Sergachev couldn't have been happier. He was one of the top prospects of the Montreal Canadiens. A future star of Les Habitants. He dreamed of someday wearing the famed bleu, blanc and rouge of hockey's most famous franchise.
Then, in June of last year, his career was turned upside down. In a blockbuster trade, the Lightning sent enigmatic, yet charismatic and wildly talented star Jonathan Drouin to Montreal for Sergachev.
Lightning fans went nuts. How could their team give up such a dynamic player like Drouin? And for who? Some defenseman they had never heard of? Some kid who had played four NHL games? Some kid who wasn't going to be any good for a few years?
But Lightning fans weren't nearly as upset as Sergachev himself.
"I was frustrated at first," Sergachev said. "I was a Habs fan. I was drafted by them. It was kind of tough because I was never traded in my life."
His feelings were hurt. His confidence was shaken. He was devastated.
But then he started talking to people. Like his agent and his family. Then came a conversation with Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman, who said the words Sergachev needed to hear.
"I was told the Lightning wanted me," Sergachev said. "I believed them and that's what made a difference."
There are few things in hockey more difficult than playing defense in the National Hockey League. To do it as a 19-year-old means plenty of fits and starts.
"He played (79 regular-season) games," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "He went through the times of despair, he went through times of excitement. He went through the grind of 82 games."
On one hand, Sergachev scored nine goals, an impressive number for a defenseman of any age. He finished with 40 points — only six fewer than Drouin. Then again, there were growing pains, too. He made mistakes, enough to be a healthy scratch in back-to-back games midway through the season.
But by the time the postseason got here, Cooper asked one question: "Is Sergachev going to be able to handle what is going on?"
He has so far. In the series against New Jersey, he played with poise and confidence. He did his job at both ends of the ice and even risked life and limb by mixing it up with Lightning-turned-Devil monster Brian Boyle.
"He raised his bar," Cooper said. "We had confidence he could and he did."
Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy said it best: "He doesn't look like a kid, a rookie out there."
For Sergachev, it was no big deal.
"I'm just a young guy trying to help," Sergachev said. "I'm just tried to simplify my game."
His goal Saturday was just that: simple. He got the puck near the blue, saw a bunch of traffic in front of New Jersey goalie Cory Schneider and shot the puck into an open lane that stretched all the way to back of the net.
So now Sergachev and his teammates move on to the next round in a season that has turned out to be better than he could have hoped. He no longer thinks of the past in Montreal, but of the future in Tampa Bay.
"I didn't know what was going to happen," Sergachev said. "But I'm happy with the way that it is now."
Best of all? He now has another series to work on that playoff beard.
Contact Tom Jones at [email protected] Follow @tomwjones