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Lightning’s Erik Cernak much more seasoned in third playoff run

The defenseman has more than doubled his production on the blue line since last year’s Stanley Cup push.
Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak, front, celebrates his goal along with right wing Nikita Kucherov after Cernak beat Canadiens goaltender Carey Price to score in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final.
Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak, front, celebrates his goal along with right wing Nikita Kucherov after Cernak beat Canadiens goaltender Carey Price to score in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jul. 3
Updated Jul. 3

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.

Related: Lightning’s Alex Killorn will miss Game 3 against Canadiens

“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.

Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak looks for the puck in the first period during Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final.
Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak looks for the puck in the first period during Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

Often, though, it’s hard for him to stand out against defensive standouts Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh, and rising star Mikhail Sergachev.

“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).

Related: How to watch the Lightning play Montreal in the Stanley Cup final

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.

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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.

Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak works to keep New York Islanders center Casey Cizikas (53) from a play at the net during Game 7 of the Stanley Cup semifinals.
Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak works to keep New York Islanders center Casey Cizikas (53) from a play at the net during Game 7 of the Stanley Cup semifinals. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

In the Stanley Cup final opener against Montreal on Monday, Cernak scored his first career playoff goal. It also helped set the tone in the Lightning’s 5-1 win.

“‘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.”

Related: Q&A: Ryan Callahan talks Stanley Cup, Olympics, ESPN

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.

Related: How Yanni Gourde became player Lightning look to for a boost

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.

Erik Cernak takes a shot at goal, trying to beat Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky in Game 4 of the first round.
Erik Cernak takes a shot at goal, trying to beat Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky in Game 4 of the first round. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

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.”

Related: Lightning’s Jon Cooper excited to coach in Montreal’s Bell Centre for Stanley Cup final

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.”

Contact Mari Faiello at mfaiello@tampabay.com. Follow @faiello_mari.

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