TAMPA — When former Lightning forward Ryan Callahan looks at this year’s postseason lineup for Tampa Bay, the gritty third line led by Yanni Gourde immediately catches his attention.
When his eyes roam to the blue line, his attention is caught by Erik Cernak, who, Callahan says, probably doesn’t get the notoriety he deserves.
“I love the way he plays,” Callahan said. “He’s a hard-nosed guy; he blocks everything out there. He’s just a thorn in your side to play against in the playoffs.”
Cernak, at 24 years old with only three years of experience in the league, has added a lot to Tampa Bay’s blue line in a short time.
“Watching (Cernak) this year, especially, he’s one of those defensemen you’re like, ‘I don’t want to be on the ice with him. I know he’s going to finish me, I know he’s going to punish me,’ " Callahan said. “He kind of goes under the radar because he’s not putting the puck in the net, but without him, that’s a big piece of why (the Lightning have) been so successful. (They have) that deep, deep D-core.”
Through 19 games this postseason, Cernak is second among Lightning defensemen in points with 10, behind Hedman (18).
It’s even more impressive given Cernak had only four points through 25 playoff games last year en route to the Stanley Cup.
It’s safe to say few knew what potential Cernak had in 2017 when then-general manager Steve Yzerman traded fan-favorite goaltender Ben Bishop to the Kings for Cernak, then a prospect; backup goalie Peter Budaj; and a pair of draft picks.
Now Cernak plays on the Lightning’s top penalty-kill unit with McDonagh and forwards Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman. He’s not afraid to sacrifice his body to keep a lead or prevent a goal.
This postseason, Cernak has 56 hits, with a playoff-game-high nine in Tampa Bay’s Game 3 overtime loss to Carolina in the second round, and blocked 23 shots. He has also taken 33 shots on goal.
“‘Cerny’ has taken a huge step this year, even more so than in years past,” said McDonagh, who skates with Cernak in the second defense pair. “He has an understanding that he has an ability to make those kinds of (offensive plays) happen. He’s such a great skater, has a great vision out there and a big shot, as well.
“The best thing about him is he doesn’t force plays or force things to happen offensively. He lets the game come to him there, and for him to step up in Game 1 of the finals and find a way to get a goal, that’s a great moment for him, and I’m sure there’ll be many more to come.”
General manager Julien BriseBois said the coaching staff feels confident placing Cernak in any situation against any player, knowing he can get the job done, which has added “tremendous value to the team.”
It’s why it was critical for BriseBois to find a way to re-sign him in the offseason, when he was a restricted free agent.
Since Cernak made his NHL debut with the Lightning in 2018, McDonagh has been a huge help to his growth as “one of the best defensemen,” teaching him the ways of the game. Cernak said he couldn’t ask for a better partner, especially because McDonagh “makes doing (my) job much easier.” Their bond has grown stronger, too.
It’s a big part of why Cernak feels more comfortable in his skates this year.
Cernak has gotten a good grasp of what it takes to be a consistent NHL player game in and game out.
“I’m always focusing on my D-zone and being good in our zone, winning battles and being physical,” Cernak said. “And here in Tampa, everyone’s helping each other.”
At the start of the postseason, McDonagh said he noticed his partner talking a lot more on the ice and helping his teammates with what he sees, letting them know where he is and if he’s open.
Hedman has noticed Cernak’s growth, too, calling him a “beast on the ice.”
“It’s fun to watch Cerny develop into the player he is,” Hedman said. “And he’s still young and still improving.”
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