TAMPA — Carter Verhaeghe thought one thing as he skated toward the San Jose net, with an angle on the only Shark between him and his first NHL goal: Just shoot it.
“I’ve had a lot of opportunities, so I’m happy that one went in,” the Lightning rookie forward said after his goal was the final one in a 7-1 win Saturday night at Amalie Arena, a big smile on his face.
Verhaeghe, 24, placed a wrist shot in the top corner of the net, far side. He couldn’t remember if he picked that corner to shoot at; he might have blacked out a little. It looked like a goal-scorer’s goal for last year’s AHL leading scorer.
On the score sheet, the goal was a footnote in a blowout for the Lightning (14-10-3), scored in the final minute. But if you judged it by the reaction of the bench and the crowd, you’d have thought it was the winner. Verhaeghe has been so close to that first goal for a few games.
His celebration was subdued, barely a fist pump, but his smile was huge.
Saturday was Verhaeghe’s best game of the season for more than just the goal. He played well from the start. After playing 15 games with just a 1 next to his name for his assist Oct. 5 against the Panthers, he recorded a three-point night.
He played on a line with Steven Stamkos and Tyler Johnson, who each scored two goals. At the beginning of the season it was surreal for him to see his name listed with theirs, but Verhaeghe has gotten used to it.
“I thought Carter really set the tone,” said Stamkos, who also had an assist. “He was flying out there. He was skating, creating turnovers, giving us chances to make plays.”
Verhaeghe set up both of Johnson’s goals. Stamkos scored on a power play.
Verhaeghe’s forecheck created the opportunity for Johnson’s first goal, 3:10 into the game. First, he lost the puck along the boards, but he stayed with the play and won it back from Marc-Edouard Vlasic a few seconds later. Verhaeghe immediately slid the puck across to Johnson, who landed a wrister from the hash marks.
Early in the third, Verhaeghe stole the puck from goalie Aaron Dell to set up Johnson’s second goal. Verhaeghe crashed the net hard as Dell played the puck behind the net. He poked the puck away from the goalie and fed it up to Stamkos, who passed to Johnson with an open net.
It hasn’t been the smoothest start for Verhaeghe. He has been in and out of the lineup, playing different roles, from fourth-line center to top-line wing, without much ice time.
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In eight of his 16 games, Verhaeghe has played less than 10 minutes. He averages 9:17, the lowest of anyone on the current roster by almost three minutes. But he played 12:38 Saturday.
He said the only thing he can do is try to get better. He works with assistant coaches Derek Lalonde and Jeff Halpern after practices. He goes over video with the staff. When Verhaeghe isn’t playing, he either watches from the gym while working out with head strength coach Mark Lambert or from the press box.
“We have some pretty good players on this team,” Verhaeghe said. “So it’s fun to watch a lot of guys for what they’re good at and try to pick up stuff from them.”
Alex Killorn, who had a goal and four points Saturday, sees growth from Verhaeghe in the battles he won against the Sharks. The NHL is a very different game from the AHL’s, and it can take time to make that adjustment, especially when a player isn’t playing consistently.
Coach Jon Cooper said Verhaeghe has played well enough to earn more points than he has. It all came together for him Saturday.
“I think this is the longest stretch of my career without scoring a goal,” Verhaeghe said. “It’s nice to see it finally pay off.”
First—1, Tampa Bay, Johnson 6 (Verhaeghe), 3:10. Penalties—Palat, TB, (tripping), 0:15 Joseph, TB, major (high sticking), 5:51.
Second—2, Tampa Bay, Killorn 8, 12:29. 3, Tampa Bay, Stamkos 8 (Killorn, Hedman), 19:33 (pp). Penalties—E.Karlsson, SJ, (slashing), 2:28 Labanc, SJ, major (high sticking), 16:16.
Third—4, Tampa Bay, Hedman 7 (Killorn, Cirelli), 0:52. 5, Tampa Bay, Johnson 7 (Stamkos, Verhaeghe), 3:51. 6, San Jose, Vlasic 5 (E.Karlsson, Meier), 14:44. 7, Tampa Bay, Stamkos 9 (Hedman, Killorn), 15:36 (pp). 8, Tampa Bay, Verhaeghe 1 (Maroon, Gourde), 19:35. Penalties—Meier, SJ, (slash), 15:29 Joseph, TB, (high stick), 16:18.
SOG—San Jose 15-15-8_38. Tampa Bay 10-9-19_38. PP opps—San Jose 0 of 4 Tampa Bay 2 of 4. Goalies—San Jose, Dell 3-4-1 (17 shots-14 saves), Jones 12-10-1 (21-17). Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 11-8-1 (38-37). A—19,092 (19,092).