NEW YORK — Yanni Gourde's first career goal Saturday was about as easy as his path to the NHL.
Gourde, 25, thrust into a penalty-kill role due to injuries, stole the puck from the Panthers' Vincent Trocheck at the blue line. Then Gourde had to hold off the wing, who was draped all over him on a partial breakaway. Trocheck first slashed Gourde, then took a final whack at his stick near the crease.
Gourde hung on, beating goalie James Reimer for the tying goal in a 3-2 victory over the Panthers. The baby-faced 5-foot-9 forward from Quebec let out a huge yell and fist pump before getting mobbed by teammates.
Oh my Gourde.
"You could see it in his eyes, how proud he was," wing Jonathan Drouin said.
This milestone moment seemed improbable four years ago, when the undrafted Gourde was demoted from the AHL to the East Coast Hockey League. Gourde studied civil engineering as a fallback.
Now he is one of six rookies playing a key role in the Lightning's fight for a playoff spot, which continues tonight against the Rangers.
Said coach Jon Cooper: "He's seizing his moment."
Gourde was at a crossroads in 2012-13.
After mustering just eight goals in 54 games with the Sharks' AHL Worcester, Gourde wasn't re-signed. It was humbling for Gourde, who accepted a stint with the San Francisco Bulls in the ECHL. But the next season, after a strong start with ECHL Kalamazoo, Gourde returned to Worcester on a 25-game pro tryout. He shined, averaging a point per game while playing on the top line and penalty kill.
"Coaches aren't stupid," said Roy Sommer, Gourde's coach at Worcester. "If a guy is going to win you games and get you points, you're not going to not play him."
The Lightning took notice, specifically scout Jamie Pushor, who emailed assistant general manager Julien BriseBois. Pushor's message: If you're looking for a player, "keep your eye on Yanni Gourde."
Gourde is in his fourth year in the Lightning organization, having spent most of his time in AHL Syracuse.
He has been a playmaker and scorer since his junior days, including 22 goals for the Crunch this season. BriseBois said Gourde may be the team's strongest pound-for-pound player. But you can tell a difference in his confidence and his all-around game in his third NHL callup.
"He was always a smart player and a skilled player," BriseBois said. "I think, like most players, at the AHL level they have tools, and it's a matter of consistently bringing them to the table. I have to say, I don't remember any game where Yanni Gourde didn't have a good game in Syracuse. He's been unreal."
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With Lightning centers Tyler Johnson, Vladislav Namestnikov and Cedric Paquette still sidelined with injuries suffered Thursday against the Wild, Gourde will get an extended look. He says he never truly gave up on getting to the NHL.
"You always keep that in mind," he said. "At that point, I was just trying to play hockey, trying to get back to the AHL. I knew I could play there. Once I was there, I knew the dream was bigger. I wanted to play in the NHL and be successful."
Gourde smiled: "And I'm at that level now."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com. Follow@TBTimes-JSmith.