EDMONTON — The trade deadline pickups of Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow have been the talk of the NHL playoffs in regards to the Lightning.
General manager Julien BriseBois would certainly get an A-plus grade for those deals, but when you dig deeper into trade deadline acquisitions from the past, former general manager Steve Yzerman left his team two nice parting gifts, as well.
While Yzerman swung for the fences at the 2018 deadline to acquire veteran defenseman Ryan McDonagh, a move he made at the 2017 deadline is paying huge dividends now, too.
Lightning fans may not have known much about defenseman Erik Cernak when he was part of the package coming back to the team in the Ben Bishop deal with the Los Angeles Kings — but they do now.
Cernak and McDonagh have formed the Lightning’s top shutdown pairing. The duo log lots of minutes, and with Cernak surrounded by a group of defensemen with loads of NHL experience, the 23-year-old hasn’t looked out of place, earning the trust of coach Jon Cooper.
“It’s funny how some trades work out ...,” Cooper said after the Lightning’s 8-2 drubbing of the New York Islanders in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final.
“Everyone knows how hard it is to find a defenseman in this league, but it’s management finding ways to make our team better. To get Cerny in that trade and watch him blossom — he’s a gamer. He does all the little things. He’s not going to be out on the power play trying to get one for us, he’s going to be blocking the shot like he did tonight on (Ryan) Pulock.”
The Lightning have long been one of the most potent offensive teams in the NHL, and Game 1 Monday was another classic example of that. But the Lightning needed a player of Cernak’s ilk on the blueline, and since making his debut with Tampa Bay last season, he has brought a level of nastiness, sandpaper and grit that’s made the team a formidable opponent night in and night out.
While he chipped in with five goals and 12 points in 67 games in the regular season, he is developing into one of the best young shot-blocking defensemen in the NHL.
He added two assists in 11 playoff games and recorded 28 blocked shots, while averaging nearly 22 minutes a game.
“It’s comforting back there to have size, strength, gamesmanship and guys that can bring pucks out and make plays and that’s what Cerny’s done,” Cooper said. “He’s another guy who’s grown into our system and grown into his game and we’re reaping the benefits now.”
On Monday night, Cernak blocked a blast from Pulock that left him hobbling to the bench and back to the locker room late in the first period, but the 6-foot-3, 233-pound native of Kosice, Slovakia, was back, no worse for wear, to start the second period.
Not only does Cernak bring his shot-block prowess, he plays with some snarl and has a knack for getting under the skin of his opponents — something the Lightning were lacking in their defense corps before his arrival.
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He had some run-ins with Bruins agitator Brad Marchand in the Lightning’s second-round series, and Monday he got under the skin of Islanders forward Matt Martin early in the third period.
“He’s been huge for us,” defenseman Victor Hedman said. “He plays with an edge and he’s great on the PK. He’s not afraid to block shots, and he plays hard in his own end every shift.
“He’s been phenomenal for us, and he’s playing a big role on our team.”