He stands in front of the net, a runt among the hooligans, and dares anyone to move him out of the way.
He jostles, he pushes, he punches. Somewhere in the vicinity of 170 pounds, he stands his ground until the moment comes, as it did Monday in Tampa Bay’s 2-1 victory against Columbus in Game 4, when he can redirect a shot past a goaltender and into the net.
That is why you should appreciate Yanni Gourde.
As for why you should love him? Well, that’s another story.
It’s the story of a kid growing up in Quebec who was never big enough, never good enough. Did you know he won the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League MVP award in 2012 — and didn’t get drafted? Did you know the San Jose Sharks signed him — and cut him loose about a year later? Did you know he spent four years in the minors — and the Lightning promoted younger players ahead of him?
Did you know earlier this season, a full two years after he scored 25 goals in Tampa Bay as a 26-year-old rookie, his minutes were cut and he was asked to be a defense-first player on the fourth line?
All true. Yet now, Gourde is the center on Tampa Bay’s most impressive line in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. He scored the third-period goal that tied the score and sent the Lightning on the way to a five-overtime victory in Game 1. Then on Monday, he scored the eventual game-winner that has the Lightning up 3-1 and on the verge of clinching the series.
So has Gourde won your heart yet?
“You ask any guy in our locker room, when you get to the rink, he’s in the little shooting area working on his stick handling, working on his shot,’' said defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk, who took the shot that Gourde tipped on Monday.
“He’s constantly breaking down film, he’s just a hard worker, that’s in his blood.”
Gourde, 28, has been reborn in this first round. Lost in the shuffle among Tampa Bay’s myriad of talented centers, Gourde was long ago moved to wing and eventually de-emphasized in the Lightning lineup.
After scoring 25 and 22 goals in his first two full seasons, he was no longer used on the power play and his shifts began to dwindle this season. From late November through mid-February, he went 35 games without scoring a goal.
Yet a strange thing happened. His teammates seemed to appreciate him even more.
Gourde didn’t pout. He didn’t whine. He didn’t allow his threadbare stats to affect the way he went about his business or the impact he had on games as a defensive pest.
“I was trying to work hard every single night,” Gourde said. “I came back after the pause trying to have a different mentality, having a little bit more composure with the puck, having a little more poise. I can make plays, I can win battles and those are things I really take pride in right now.”
He began the season on a line with Pat Maroon and Cedric Paquette, which made sense because he shares some of their same traits for tenacity and physical play. But while they were all good on the forecheck, there wasn’t enough skill to make an impact offensively.
During the pause, coach Jon Cooper moved Gourde back to center and paired him with new acquisitions Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow. A line, Cooper described, as sandpaper with skill. It’s the same type of line that Gourde was on previously, but it’s played at a quicker pace. Now, it is the line Cooper routinely uses to start a period because it has been so effective in gaining momentum.
“The big thing for us was putting Yanni in the middle. He’s really accepted that role,” Cooper said. “It was something he did for us early on when he was called up a couple of years ago, but we were so deep down the middle it was hard to break in there. Now, he’s kind of found his niche there and it’s really worked well for him.”
Love at first sight?
That’s never been Gourde’s style during his hockey career. But give him some time. The little guy will grow on you.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.