TAMPA — Rookie defenseman Jake Dotchin said tallying his first career NHL point Tuesday night was a thrill.
But what meant more to Dotchin, 22, was when he got it.
With the Lightning in a must-win game and trailing the Bruins by two goals, Dotchin was on the ice in the final minutes in a 6-on-5 situation. Dotchin picked up the secondary assist on Brayden Point's goal with 2:04 left in the 4-3 loss.
"Just to know the coaches have the confidence in me now is a nice thing," Dotchin said.
Dotchin has quickly earned the Lightning's coaches' trust in just four games. His playing time has steadily grown, from 11:47 Jan. 21 in Arizona to 20:25 Tuesday, and he likely will be in the lineup tonight against Ottawa at Amalie Arena. Dotchin is drawing tough assignments while playing alongside All-Star Victor Hedman, who no doubt has helped the 2012 sixth-round draft pick adjust.
"It's a meritocracy," coach Jon Cooper said. "And (Dotchin) has earned the right to be here. When we bring these young guys up … you've got to give them a fair look, and I feel like we're doing that. And (Dotchin has) earned his right to play. If he keeps doing this, he's going to play about as much and maybe more."
Dotchin is not the answer to the Lightning's need for another top-four defenseman. But Cooper said that Dotchin being a right-handed shot is a "good asset to have."
Dotchin's development could be intriguing as the Lightning will soon have to look toward next season. Fellow right-shot defensemen Luke Witkowski and Andrej Sustr can be restricted free agents this summer. That Dotchin is with the Lightning and playing while Slater Koekkoek remains with AHL Syracuse is telling in terms of what the Lightning needs.
Dotchin, who has size at 6 feet 3 and 220 pounds, plays a simple game. He has shown confidence with his play in both zones.
"He's showing no fear, and that's big," Cooper said. "He's not sitting there playing not to make a mistake. And that's what you like in a guy. He can get a shot off from the point. He's got good instincts all over the ice. You're waiting to see when a new guy comes up when he's going to take that dip, because it always happens. But he's played a couple games so far, and it hasn't happened."
It has been a whirlwind few weeks for Dotchin, who was called up Jan. 17 during the Lightning's six-game, 13-day road trip. Against the Coyotes, he became the 34th different player to appear in a game for Tampa Bay. Three days later, Dotchin's parents, Mark and Michelle, and several other family members caught his game in Chicago.
Dotchin said that after his first few shifts, he settled in.
"Just keep things simple, and I think that's my game," he said. "I get the puck up to the forwards and just be hard to play against, be a physical presence out there, kind of instill in teams that I'm going to be there to finish checks and be somebody that guys don't want to play against night in and night out."
Dotchin has enjoyed the spoils of NHL travel versus AHL, charter flights instead of bus rides. He said teammates gave him a reprieve, however, when it came to helping foot the bill for the annual rookie dinner on the road trip in Arizona. He didn't have to contribute.
"I hope next year I get to pay it," Dotchin quipped.
Dotchin said he took last weekend's All-Star break to head back to Syracuse to pick up more clothes. He then drove his truck to his hometown, Paris, Ontario, to catch up with friends and family.
"I think that's when it really kicked in, 'I'm actually in the NHL,' " Dotchin said. "You hear from everyone, how people came to talk to me or sent me a message. It was pretty special. Just ready to keep going."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.