What’s behind Yanni Gourde’s strong start for the Lightning

Tampa Bay Lightning center Yanni Gourde (37)  is off to a strong start after a big rookie season. DIRK SHADD   |   Times
Tampa Bay Lightning center Yanni Gourde (37) is off to a strong start after a big rookie season. DIRK SHADD | Times
Published October 23 2018

Yanni Gourde has a simple goal this season, and it's the same one he had last season: Play 82 games.

The Lightning forward knows how much each game counts. Gourde was just short of the NHL's cutoff to count a rookie season two years ago. So he was technically a rookie last season, after five years in the pro ranks.

He achieved his goal of playing in every game, and then finished fourth on the team in points for good measure.

This year, he's starting off similarly. Gourde is on a six-game point streak (every game but the opener) and has four goals, four assists.

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"For him to get a couple of goals early is a good thing," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said, whose team faces the Avalanche at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday in Denver. "He had such a fast start to the season last year, I think massive expectations were put on his shoulders."

Gourde's production lagged at the end of last season, which Cooper said weighed on the forward. His early success this year may have been a bit self-fulfilling: He starts scoring, gains confidence, keeps scoring.

Gourde downplays it, saying he "just needs to do my job to help the team win." A full year in the NHL last year helped him learn what to focus on in the offseason. He didn't change his routine too much, but did want to improve his skating and get faster.

"There are some shots Kuch (forward Nikita Kucherov) works on that are unreal," Gourde said. "It's fun seeing those things but at the same time, you're like 'I could probably try a few of those.' So you see what these guys are doing and just try to replicate a little bit."

Neither Gourde nor Cooper want to fixate on points.  Both see him as more than a scorer. Gourde had a goal and an assist against Columbus, but didn't feel he played well, didn't think he was involved in the game enough.

"I want to create turnovers, recover pucks, create scoring chances," he said. "That's the kind of stuff I really look at after the game. I'm like, 'tonight went well, I had the puck, I felt good with the puck, I made good chances.' "

Cooper said Gourde has earned ice time in all situations; he plays on the power play and the penalty kill. The coach is judging Gourde on more than points, and he's passing every test. He didn't want to say too much about set expectations, though.

"Because he scored 25, is that the bar, or is he a 40-goal scorer, or is he a 15-goal scorer?" Cooper said. "If he ended up being a four-goal scorer, we'd have concerns, but he's contributing to our team all over the ice."

Gourde does have a sweet spot, though. When he scored from the bottom of the circle Sunday in Chicago, Fox Sports Sun color analyst Brian Engblom called it "a long-distance goal for him." Gourde scores most of his goals just off the crease, 76 percent according to the website icydata.com. That's even higher than the league's 63 percent.

"I have to get to the front of the net, that's where they want me and I just have to keep doing that," Gourde summed it up.

Contact Diana Nearhos at dnearhos@tampabay.com. Follow @dianacnearhos

Wednesday

Lightning at Avalanche, 9:30, Denver

TV/radio: Fox Sports Sun; 970-AM

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