TAMPA — Mikhail Sergachev came up through the hockey ranks much like many of today’s talented defensemen do. Gifted with a combination of size, speed and skill, he was a man among boys in the junior ranks. He could skate and score all night.
But when you get to the NHL, you have to learn how to defend. Being an offensive-minded defenseman, being a great skater with a shot to match, can only get you so far, and it took him a while to learn that.
Friday, his 23rd birthday, might have been the highlight of Sergachev’s young NHL career. If you weren’t listening closely, you probably didn’t notice his coach and teammates raving about the 30 seconds he spent defending the Lightning net to help preserve a one-goal lead in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup semifinal series.
“One of the best games I’ve seen from him since I’ve been a part of this team, just from an inspirational standpoint,” Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said.
The Islanders were making one final push with their season on the line and their goaltender pulled for an extra attacker.
Sergachev was officially credited with one shot block in the final 30 seconds. Not only did he make a sliding block on Ryan Pulock’s slap shot from the point, he also broke up two passes from the corner toward the front of the net and slid in front of Islander forward Anthony Beauvillier to interrupt his open look coming across the left circle.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper called it a “clinic.”
On a veteran-laden team full of stars like the Lightning, it’s easy for Sergachev’s development into an all-around defenseman to slip under the radar. But it has been essential to Tampa Bay moving to within hree wins of back-to-back Stanley Cups following Monday’s Game 1 victory over Montreal.
The Lightning acquired Sergachev from the Canadiens as an 18-year-old in 2017 when then-general manager Steve Yzerman sent forward Jonathan Drouin to Montreal. Drouin, the former third overall pick by the Lightning, has struggled to meet expectations in his native Quebec and was placed on long-term injured reserve for personal reasons in April.
“It was great getting traded here,” Sergachev said. “That’s all I’m gonna say about that.”
One thing that stood out to Cooper in his first days with Sergachev was that he never played with two hands on his stick, which hindered his defensive game.
“He could use his legs to get out of trouble, but he had to learn how to use that big frame, and it just took time,” Cooper said. “Really, our mandate with him was how to play in his defensive zone and how to play like a man down there, and it took him a couple years to do that. But boy has he ever gravitated to it now and takes pride in it.
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“It’s been fun to watch him work, because that kid’s got a bright future.”
Sergachev’s four goals and 30 points in the regular season were his lowest in four years with the Lightning. While he’s still a big part of the Lightning offense, shooting pucks from the point and playing on the second power-play unit, Tampa Bay has a bevy of goal-scoring weapons.
Sergachev’s greater value comes on the defensive end.
“Games are never perfect, so I make some mistakes here and there, but I’m trying to be in the right spot all the time, not get out of position so I can block a shot or be in a lane or have a good stick,” Sergachev said. “I’m trying to battle, win battles and get pucks to our forwards.
“My offense is not going right now, but I’m not really worried about that, because we’ve got guys who can put the puck in the net. I’ve just got to dish it to them and see what happens.”
Having Victor Hedman, one of the game’s top two-way defensemen, and McDonagh, one of the league’s top shot-blockers, to learn from has also helped Sergachev. He’s taken notes watching the veteran duo take their games to the next level the past two postseasons.
“It’s just learning from them, how they lead the team,” Sergachev said, “because I want to be a leader on the team and I’m trying to do the same as they do on the ice: blocking shots and playing heavy when I need to be, bringing offense when I need to bring offense. They’re the best players in the world, and I’m really lucky to have them here.”
Sergachev has also upped his physicality. In fact, he’s one of just two players to register at least 50 hits and 40 blocks this postseason. Montreal defenseman Ben Chiarot is the other.
“I think he likes to be offensive and use his skill,” McDonagh said. ”He’s pretty special in that aspect, but the thing I love about him is his willingness to get better in all areas. He knows he can be offensive and help distribute the puck, and he’s got a great shot. But I think he wants to work at being a 200-foot, all-around defenseman, and he’s definitely coming into his own there in that aspect.”
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