NEW YORK—Erik Cernak sunk to one knee with an emphatic fist pump and then threw himself into his teammates’ arms. The bench wasn’t passively waiting with a high five line for this one.
“You could tell from my celebration, I was really happy for my first goal,” Cernak said. “It’s been a long time, 30 games. Finally, I scored my first goal and hopefully it isn’t my last one.”
The whole Lightning team wanted a piece of the celebration of Cernak’s first NHL goal, in the second period of the Lightning’s 3-2 win over the Rangers. Cedric Paquette’s reaction next to the net as the puck went past goalie Henrik Lundqvist looked like he could have been the one who scored.
“He’s had a lot of chances,” Steven Stamkos said. “He’s played great. He’s maintained his focus and his confidence. It was nice to see him rewarded. The bench was pretty pumped up.”
Cernak has made a big impact on this team since getting his first NHL call up almost two months ago. He earned his place against opponents’ top lines with Ryan McDonagh. He’s played well enough to make you forget he hadn’t scored.
The Lightning hadn’t forgotten, though. The goal deserved celebration in itself.
Ryan Callahan started the play, carrying the puck into the zone and making a move to give himself space as he surveyed the ice. Callahan found Cernak entering the zone. Cernak settled the puck, put it on his forehand and ripped a wrist shot over Lundqvist’s shoulder. A nice goal on a good goalie.
“The thing on the bench was he saved it for a Hall of Famer in net and at Madison Square Garden,” coach Jon Cooper said. “So it was a good one for him.”
As the Lightning celebrated, Victor Hedman motioned for someone to get the puck. Afterward, Cernak posed for the standard photo with the puck.
Cernak had been close the last three games, since the break, and had come close a few times. Now, he finally got it.
He has been playing a lot of minutes, and at crucial times, including as this one came down to the last minutes. It’s been a nice vote of confidence from the coaches.
“Especially for a defenseman, it’s OK to baby step your way in,” Cooper said. “With every passing week, you see more confidence build. And then things like this happen. It couldn’t have happened at a better time because obviously we needed that goal.”
That goal gave the Lightning a 2-0 lead about five minutes into the second period. Yanni Gourde at put Tampa Bay up in the first. He poked the puck into the net as the rebound of McDonagh’s shot sat in the crease.
Steven Stamkos added another four minutes after Cernak’s goal to put Tampa Bay up 3-0. Some beautiful passing set up that goal: first a drop pass from Nikita Kucherov to Hedman and then Hedman cycled over to Stamkos at the right circle. He sniped a shot top shelf.
With that goal, Stamkos now has more goals in 52 games this season (28) than he did in his 78 games last season (27).
The Rangers then worked their way back into the game Mats Zuccarello got New York on the board late in the second period, with a shot that deflected off Louis Domingue.
Kevin Hayes brought the Rangers within one with a power-play goal seven minutes into the third period. His shot from the right circle beat Domingue cleanly. The goalie had to look over his shoulder for the puck.
The Lightning clamped down after that, however. Tampa Bay didn’t make it easy, giving the Rangers another power play, and then in effect playing another when coach David Quinn pulled Lundqvist with 2:19 to go.
Domingue was strong in net with the game on the line, as he has been this season overall. When Vasilevskiy was injured, Domingue proved his ability to come up with timely saves and he did so again on Saturday, even down to the last second. He made a nice toe save with 0.6 seconds on the clock, maintaining the one-goal lead.