TAMPA — Erik Cernak isn’t flashy on the ice. He’s a steady presence on the Lightning blue line alongside partner Ryan McDonagh, and he tries to play a simple game.
But while opponents often focus on Victor Hedman, McDonagh or even Mikhail Sergachev, Cernak gives them something else to worry about.
“He’s like (Ondrej Palat) on the first line,” Lightning TV analyst and Stanley-Cup winning defenseman Brian Engblom said. “They’re always talking about somebody else.”
Without Cernak, the Lightning would be incomplete in a lot of ways. He eats up a lot of minutes (his 20:45 per game are fourth most on the team) and plays on the squad’s top penalty-kill unit with McDonagh. The offensive part of his game is on the rise, too — making him more of a complete defenseman.
Through six games, Cernak leads the roster in shots on goal (24), ahead of Hedman (17), McDonagh (13) and Sergachev (12). In Saturday’s shootout loss to Colorado, Cernak had seven shots on goal — three more than next-best Corey Perry and Brayden Point and more than twice as many as any other defenseman. And he kept up the pace in Monday’s loss at Buffalo with a roster-leading five (tied with McDonagh).
“Cerny’s just the guy who goes unnoticed sometimes back there,” coach Jon Cooper said. “... But he and Mac (McDonagh) do some heavy lifting for our group. And it’s no surprise, when he’s not around our game slides a bit.”
Since Cernak entered the league in 2018-19, he’s consistently partnered with McDonagh in the team’s second defense pair. The shutdown duo work so well together because of how well they know each other’s game.
“They just fit,” Engblom said. “(Chemistry’s) an unknown. (General managers) make trades and whatever, coaches draw things up on paper and say, ‘Oh, this is going to be great.’ And it’s not. Chemistry takes care of itself, and even the players themselves go, ‘I don’t know why it doesn’t work. I don’t know why it does work, But it works.’”
Playing with McDonagh for four seasons has helped Cernak’s development. He’s been able to take away things from McDonagh’s game that have benefited his own.
“You learn from the guys you’re around on the ice,” Engblom said. “(Cernak’s) with two or three of the best in the game. Sergachev has his skills, Heddy (Hedman) has them all, and McDonagh has them all, too. They’re just a little bit different ... styles of play.”
With every year, Cernak grows more confident in his game. He wants to become a better all-around defenseman, so he spent the offseason focusing on how he can jump into more plays and rushes.
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His teammates have noticed a difference, too. During training camp, McDonagh said Cernak’s experience has made him a more confident player on the ice.
“He’s a big guy that gets up and down the ice pretty quick, too,” McDonagh said at the time. “That falls into what’s expected of us as d-men, getting up in the play and being part of the rush, and he wants to do that. He wants to be there for us as a team, and it’s just another part of him becoming a two-way force out there.”
At just 24, Cernak has accomplished a lot in a short time. Two Stanley Cups and a 2022 Winter Olympic selection for Team Slovakia are nothing to shrug off, but Cernak doesn’t think about what’s happened. He thinks about what he can still do and how he can get there. He’s not satisfied, yet.
“I’m trying to do my best every single year ... and keep trying out some new things to help the team in different ways, and so far it’s been good,” Cernak said. “I don’t really think about (what I’ve done). I’m just trying to enjoy hockey.”
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