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Give Mom credit for Lightning defenseman Slater Koekkoek's breakout

Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Slater Koekkoek (29) celebrates beating Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Antti Niemi (31) for his second goal of the game on a play where he came out of the penalty box to score on the rush making the score 5 to 3 during second period action at the Amalie Arena in Tampa Thursday evening (10/12/17). Koekkoek also scored his first ever NHL goal in the first period. DIRK SHADD   |   Times
Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Slater Koekkoek (29) celebrates beating Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Antti Niemi (31) for his second goal of the game on a play where he came out of the penalty box to score on the rush making the score 5 to 3 during second period action at the Amalie Arena in Tampa Thursday evening (10/12/17). Koekkoek also scored his first ever NHL goal in the first period. DIRK SHADD | Times
Published Oct. 14, 2017

TAMPA -— Thursday's Lightning-Penguins game was about only five minutes in when Karen Koekkoek turned to her husband, Brian, as they watched from their living room in Manotick, Ontario.

The subject was their son, Lightning defenseman Slater Koekkoek, 23, playing in just his second game this season.

"I just said, 'Oh, all he really needs is to just get a goal,' " Karen told Brian. " 'It'll just get him going.' "

Seconds later, Slater one-timed a carom off the boards. The puck deflected off the stick of the Penguins' Tom Kuhnhackl, knuckled through traffic and somehow snuck through goalie Antti Niemi's legs. Even Slater laughed at the luck. What a way to get his first NHL goal. When he said "someone was watching down on me," in that moment, he was right.

Momma knows best.

Once Karen called Slater's first goal, Brian quickly quipped that she should say it again. Slater ended up scoring twice in a 5-4 win over the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins, a potential breakthrough performance in a make-or-break season for the 2012 first-round draft pick.

RELATED: Slater Koekkoek scores his first two NHL goals in a win over the Penguins.

"It's a turning point for him," Karen said Friday. "Slater just thrives on that. You can't put him down, because he just fights back."

Slater was due for some good fortune. He overcame three shoulder surgeries to make his NHL debut in March 2015. Then — partially due to his not having to clear waivers, partially due to his underwhelming training camp — he found himself spending most of last season with AHL Syracuse.

Now, not only is Slater battling to crack the lineup in a deep blue line, the Lightning has to decide if he's still part of its future, the 6-foot-2 defenseman on a one-year, $800,000 deal.

"I've got something to prove," he said.

Koekkoek was a healthy scratch for the first two games of this season, then played just over three minutes Monday against the Capitals. Coach Jon Cooper felt for him.

"You wouldn't know (he played three minutes) with the way he acts," captain Steven Stamkos said. "He comes to practice, he works. He had some opportunity to play some more (Thursday), and he made the best of it."

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Koekkoek's extended playing time against the Penguins (9:44) came at the expense of touted prospect Mikhail Sergachev, who played a season-low 5:22. Cooper stuck with his veteran defensemen down the stretch, but Koekkoek got six third-period shifts. That shouldn't be surprising for those who watched Koekkoek play critical minutes against the Penguins in the 2016 Eastern Conference final. But it has taken awhile for him to earn back that trust.

Koekkoek, with just 43 NHL games of experience, needs to play, for his development and for the Lightning to see what it has in him. That's why something has to give on its eight-deep blue line. There have been rumblings that Andrej Sustr might be getting shopped, the veteran right-handed shot also on a one-year deal, but his worth $1.95 million.

Teams likely have called about Koekkoek, betting that a change of scenery could do wonders for the 10th overall pick. Yzerman has traded three of his seven first-round draft picks.

Koekkoek just moved out of his downtown Tampa hotel into a condo, giving him a little more stability. His parents helped him get settled Wednesday, flying home to their suburban Ottawa town and missing his milestone goal by a day. Karen laughed at Slater's celebration of his second goal, the defenseman leaping and spinning into the boards. She wrote on social media, "I think that's your figure skating lessons paying off."

Karen, a former figure skater, put Slater in lessons before he played hockey. "They kicked him out cause he was so little, 3 years old and skating circles around everybody," Karen said. "They said, 'I think this boy has to go into hockey.' "

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@tampabay.com. Follow@TBTimes_JSmith.