TAMPA — If there’s one player who best represents the Lightning’s drive and determination, it might be third-line center Yanni Gourde.
The Lightning aren’t two wins from stamping their legacy as back-to-back Stanley Cup champions without Gourde. And as much as Gourde has been a critical piece to Tampa Bay reaching hockey’s mountaintop, his climb was a rocky one.
But the energy Gourde brings when he hops over the boards and his blades touch the ice is nothing short of electric.
Teammates are awed by his ability to dig deep and play at such a frenetic pace. He’s not afraid to tussle with players much bigger than his 5-foot-10 frame. In fact, the smile on his face afterward says he loves getting under the other team’s skin. His teammates call him an Energizer Bunny in skates.
He’s the kind of player championship teams need.
“He’s just non-stop, his work and he’s moving his legs, he’s just a huge pain in the rear to play against, and it’s infectious,” linemate Blake Coleman said. “I think you need guys like that. There’s a lot of games during a season and during a playoff run ,and it’s hard to consistently have that energy and those legs. And when you have a guy that’s always able to bring it like Yanni, you can kind of plug into him for that energy and really build off that.
“You just can’t get enough Yanni Gourdes in your lineup.”
As the Lightning head into Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final with a 2-0 series lead, Gourde has scored four goals in the past seven games, including some of the most important in putting the Lightning where they currently sit.
Now Gourde, a Quebec native who grew up outside Montreal rooting for the Canadiens — though he’s said his favorite player growing up was Martin St. Louis — has the opportunity to return home and close out the Canadiens at the Bell Centre in Games 3 and 4.
For a player who went undrafted after a stellar juniors career and toiled between the AHL and ECHL during his first three pro seasons, unable to find a place to stick before he was given a chance with the Lightning’s AHL team in Syracuse in 2014, to think where he is now is remarkable. But Gourde always pushed harder, and having the mentality that there’s always another gear to reach is what made him the player he is today.
“I think it’s how I’ve always played in junior, in the minors and coming up here, and that’s why they gave me a shot, because I’m relentless,” Gourde said. “I try to play hard every single night. I try to be consistent in what I do and that’s how I got my first NHL shot, and I’ve tried to bring that same energy, the same way I played every single night then. So, I mean, it’s been working,”
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That hunger has been apparent since Gourde’s first day with the Lightning.
“The thing about Gordo is that he really hasn’t changed much since he came in the league,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “And I mean that in a great way, because he’s always got that kind of dog-on-a bone mentality on the ice. You know there’s certain times where players have come in, they have a little success and then they get comfortable. He goes out there and he works extremely hard every time. It’s amazing to see, whether it’s in practice or in the game.”
Gourde has 13 goals over the past two postseasons, including four game-winners. He scored the only goal in the Lightning’s Game 7 win over the Islanders in the semifinals, his tip in front of the net in Game 1 of the final turned out to be the game-winner, and he put a marvelous move on New York defenseman Andy Greene in open ice to help open the floodgates in the 8-0 rout over the Islanders in Game 5 of the semifinal series.
“If I’m being completely honest, I would not have projected him to be the player that he is today,” said Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois, who was Syracuse’s GM when Gourde was signed. “Once we brought him into the organization and I got to know the person and the competitor a little bit more and the professional that he is, I could see why he may end up being more because of his work ethic, his passion for the game, his drive to be the best player he can be. And today, I’m so impressed by the player that he is.”
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