TAMPA — Lightning defenseman Luke Schenn doesn’t always know when his number will be called upon, but he stays ready.
His work ethic is never questioned. He’s on the ice before and after morning skates and practices with strength and conditioning coach Mark Lambert and other assistant coaches, rarely taking a day off. It’s the work behind the scenes that keeps him prepared.
During pre-game warmups Monday night, Schenn wasn’t sure where he would be watching Game 5: right in the action with a front-row seat on the team bench or from the locker room.
When fellow blueliner Erik Cernak wasn’t able to go, battling an upper-body-injury, Schenn was. And the defenseman, who hadn’t been in the lineup since June 3 at Carolina, made an impactful return to play in the Lightning’s 8-0 win over the Islanders.
Playing just over 15 minutes, getting into a fight with Islanders forward Matt Martin and scoring his first goal of this postseason, Schenn was hard to ignore.
When the team lost Jan Rutta at the end of the second period, the group’s depth on the blue line was further emphasized.
“Schenner jumped in and played unbelievable,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “...(His night was) kind of the hockey gods. That’s how they work. You play great, you earn your bounces.”
Schenn played in 38 regular-season games, with two goals and two assists. This postseason, he has made an appearance in seven contests.
He’s gotten good at jumping in at a moment’s notice.
On March 25, Cernak was banged up with a lower-body injury. Schenn shuffled into the lineup for his first game in nearly two weeks. That night, he logged 10:26 on ice and six hits.
He was a consistent face on the ice from then on, playing in 21 of the team’s remaining 23 games as he filled in for injured defensemen and took on the role of an extra when the group went with an adjusted 11 forwards, seven defensemen lineup.
“No one’s going to babysit you to make sure that you’re ready to go. It’s on you as a pro to be ready,” Schenn said soon after the start.
The extra work Schenn had put in since his last game made it more of a “seamless transition” as he tried to catch up to the speed of the game. On Monday, he felt prepared.
“You just kind of stay patient and try to work and be supportive of all the guys, cheering them on for wins,” Schenn said. “It’s tough to stay out of the playoffs; you just have to be supportive of the guys and stay the course.”
Schenn’s teammates and coaches will tell you he’s the definition of team-first player.
Said Norris Trophy finalist Victor Hedman: “He always stays ready for when he’s going to get into the lineup and (Monday) was a good example. I thought he was very crisp in what he was doing, great passes, he plays physical. He’s not afraid to get involved physically ... he just brings that energy to our team.”
And added Lambert: “This is where you have to tip your hat off to him. A lot of guys (in his position) would be checked out, would have checked out a long time ago. And for him, that’s the kind of professional he is. He knows he needs to be ready and he knows that he needs to do whatever it is that he needs to do to play.”
Schenn isn’t a stranger to the big games, either. The 13-year-veteran has played in 30 playoff games from four postseason runs. Last year, he played in 11 — notching two assists — en route to the Lightning hoisting the Stanley Cup.
“It’s no different than last year,” coach Jon Cooper said. “He was a huge reason we beat the Islanders last year, when he stepped in and played minutes for us when he was needed. He did a hell of a job for us.”
And Cooper thinks Schenn sets a pretty clear example for younger players, understanding his role with a strong desire to win and contribute but having that willingness to put the team first when it matters.
“He treats his career like every day is going to be his last day,” Cooper said. “For him to not be down, to keep working, to understand his time is coming and then to have him thrust in the limelight and perform the way he did, it’s a lesson. It’s a lesson that people should watch and admire.”
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