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Lightning’s Erik Cernak showing growth, one Gordie Howe hat trick at a time

The third-year defenseman is impressing offensively while continuing to show physicality in his own end.
Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak takes down Blackhawks defenseman Connor Murphy as the two players fight in the second period Tuesday in Chicago.
Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak takes down Blackhawks defenseman Connor Murphy as the two players fight in the second period Tuesday in Chicago.
Published Apr. 28
Updated Apr. 28

It’s not easy to get one Gordie Howe hat trick — a goal, an assist and a fight in one game — let alone two over the span of seven weeks. But that’s what Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak had accomplished following Tuesday’s 7-4 playoff-clinching win over Chicago.

Cernak’s assist on Alex Killorn’s late third-period empty-netter gave him his second Howe hat trick of the season. His first came March 11 against the Red Wings. For the Lightning, the accomplishment is not just hockey novelty, but a sign of how the 23-year-old defenseman is growing into a more complete player.

Cernak’s goal came just 28 seconds into the game, jumping up to intercept a lazy pass from Chicago’s Riley Stillman in the defensive zone and creating his own breakaway. He jetted past two Blackhawks defensemen along the right wing and scored with a wrist shot from the right circle.

It was Cernak’s third goal in his past nine games. He’s already passed last year’s point total (12) and is one shy of his career-high of 16 during his rookie year of 2018-19. In this abbreviated season, he has reached 15 points in just 39 games.

Cernak has become much more comfortable and aggressive offensively while maintaining the grit that makes him one of the team’s more physical defensemen.

“He’s gotten more confident with the puck, for sure,” Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev said after Tuesday’s game. “Before he would get rid of it, send it behind the net or something. Now, he skates within the zone, brings it in, makes some plays, passes, shoots the puck well. He’s just got more confident with the puck, and it’s great for us. I’m happy for him, and he’s just going to get better. He’s great to play with, obviously, and he’s good all around.”

The Lightning's Erik Cernak (81) scores past Blackhawks goaltender Kevin Lankinen during the first period of Tuesday's game in Chicago.
The Lightning's Erik Cernak (81) scores past Blackhawks goaltender Kevin Lankinen during the first period of Tuesday's game in Chicago. [ CHARLES REX ARBOGAST | AP ]

Cernak’s fight had to be sweet redemption. He was in a shoving match with Mike Hardman, who was making his NHL debut Tuesday, when Blackhawks defenseman Connor Murphy came over with his eyes on Cernak, who was more than willing to drop his gloves.

You might remember it was Murphy who drew a match penalty for a high hard hit on Cernak behind the net on March 7. The Lightning had been trying to get their swings at Murphy since. Bally Sports Sun even showed a mic’d-up Barclay Goodrow challenging Murphy to fight during the last meeting between the teams, but Murphy declined, saying Goodrow was a “low-line player.”

Cernak was able to get his swings in on Tuesday, unloading several right-handed uppercuts and one hook to Murphy’s head before taking the Blackhawks defenseman down.

“I think Cernak’s had a hell of a year from start to finish, and he just continues to grow,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “He’s got a better feel for the league, the players, what he can do and what he can’t do. And when you’re big, strong, can skate, got a good head for the game and you’re willing to work hard, good things are probably going to happen for you. And they’re happening for him and I’m proud of him, because he’s worked hard to get to this point.”

Savard out as a precaution

Trade-deadline acquisition David Savard’s absence on Tuesday was more of a precaution than anything serious, Cooper said. Savard is listed as day-to-day with a lower-body injury.

“You get to this time of the year, and if you got little ailments and there’s a chance to get a little bit of rest, we felt this was the time,” Cooper said. “We don’t want to push things. We want to make sure we’ve got guys ready down the stretch. I expect him back the next game, but we want to wait a couple days to see.”

With a postseason bid in hand, Cooper said he could give players rest down the stretch, but he wants to keep them sharp — especially since there could be a layoff between the end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs.

“We’ve got to continue to play guys and give them games,” Cooper said. “We can’t be giving guys multiple games off because then they lose their timing. So there’ll be a balance here, and we’ll find it.”

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