ANAHEIM — It was very typical Nikita Kucherov: a goal scored on the rush, a one-timer from the right circle. The atypical part was the assist. It was defenseman Erik Cernak with Kucherov on the rush, who made a beautiful backhand pass.
Yes, Cernak. The rookie defenseman has been getting more involved on the attack recently. Add it to the list of things he's doing well for the Lightning.
"It was a great pass," Kucherov said. "I'm just happy for him. He's been good for us and every game he's progressing. He's making plays and has a good shot. When the d-men make plays like that, it makes me happy. When they do things like this, we score goals."
On Kucherov's goal in the 2-1 overtime win over Anaheim, Cernak and he had a mini 2-on-1 opportunity. Cernak streaked through the slot, toward the goal. He might have had a chance for his first NHL goal, but passed it over. He saw Kucherov and figured he would be the safer bet.
Cernak's backhand was one of two smooth passes on the play. Brayden Point came into the zone and pulled up, to draw the defenseman; then sent the puck around a Duck to Cernak. The three Lightning players all came in with different speeds and they weren't lined up, making accurate passes harder. Cernak's was right on Kucherov's tape and the winger made the goal look easy.
Kucherov praised Cernak's skating, saying his speed made the play. He also pointed to the goal J.T. Miller scored against Edmonton before Christmas. Cernak got in on the attack to set that one up to.
In that case, it was a matter of cycling. Alex Killorn brought the puck up high and handed it off to Cernak. He then carried it all the way to the bottom of the circle, then sent a centering pass to Miller. It was another well-placed, accurate pass.
"You have to build a base," Cernak said. "You can't jump every time. You have to learn the right time."
Cernak was called up almost two months ago, told to pack for a week. Plays like these are part of why he's still here and has played 21 games. Coach Jon Cooper sees plays like that are evidence of Cernak getting more and more comfortable in the NHL
He's the reason, after all, that the Lightning is currently rotating defensemen. When Anton Stralman got healthy, Cernak's play demanded that he stay on the team.
General manager Julien BriseBois acknowledged that the easy thing to do would be to send Cernak back to the AHL — he's the only defenseman who doesn't have to clear waivers and could go right back to playing big minutes for Syracuse. But BriseBois doesn't think that's the best thing for the team.
"He's too good for us to send back," BriseBois said. "He makes us better, he balances our right side and our left side."
That doesn't necessarily mean Cernak is here for good. He's still staying in a hotel and most of his belongings are still in Syracuse. Rotating defensemen isn't a permanent solution and once the Lightning is fully healthy (Miller is currently on the IR), it won't have enough roster spots.
But that's a problem for another day. For now, Cernak continues to earn his spot on the team and in the lineup