TAMPA — Corey Perry has been to the postseason enough times to understand that anything can happen.
He won the Stanley Cup in his first full NHL season at the age of 22 with Anaheim, then waited 13 years for his next Cup final. He helped the Stars and Canadiens to the doorstep of a championship the past two seasons, with both teams losing to the Lightning in the Cup final.
Tampa Bay saw firsthand the way Perry’s game, even in the twilight of his career, is made for playoff hockey. And that’s part of the reason the Lightning signed him to a two-year, $2 million free-agent deal in the offseason.
“He’s in your face. He gets to those hard areas,” Lightning assistant Derek Lalonde said. “When the game ratchets up a little bit, he’s the type of guy where that (game) fits into his skill set.”
Perry, who turns 37 on May 16, can still score. His 19 goals during the regular season were his most since 2016-17. But his value as a bottom-six wing goes beyond any numbers he puts up. He is a nuisance to play against, whether it’s the way he slithers his way into scoring areas or the way he can rile up opponents by getting in their face and getting physical, two of the reasons he’s nicknamed “The Worm.”
“He’s made to be a playoff guy because he’s ornery and he’s nasty and he’s driven and he’s talented,” Lightning TV analyst Brian Engblom said. “And he wants confrontation. And when there’s not confrontation, he creates confrontation. And he drags his own teammates into stuff, and that’s a valuable tool. He’s always in the middle of it, literally stirring the pot.”
On a team that has mostly had its way in the postseason the past two years, Perry adds a different perspective. The Stars of two seasons ago had to claw their way to the Cup final. Last year’s Canadiens team fought just to get into the playoffs, then rallied from a 3-1 series deficit against the Maple Leafs in the first round.
“He’s been in Stanley Cup final after Stanley Cup final,” former NHL player and current TNT studio analyst Anson Carter said. “He seems to be the X factor. I’m not going to count him out.”
Perry, in the postseason for the 14th time in his career, knows that inside every play are countless opportunities to change momentum.
“You could say you can lean back on experience and this and that. But each game in the playoffs, it can go either way,” Perry said. “One bounce here, one bounce there, a big body check turns the momentum, a big (penalty kill), you can’t lean on that stuff. That just happens. So you just go in day by day and take it where it goes.”
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While the spotlight of the postseason makes gaining a mental edge important, Perry said he doesn’t change his game at all. Still, his ability to get under his opponent’s skin has greater magnitude.
At the end of the Lightning’s Game 1 loss to the Maple Leafs, Perry agitated forward Wayne Simmonds, starting a scrum that led to six misconduct penalties. In Game 2, Simmonds was looking to punish the Lightning and committed two penalties, including a cross-check on Perry that led to power-play goals in the Lightning’s win and Simmonds’ benching in Game 3.
“It could be where that happens and they take a penalty and we score on the power play,” Perry said. “That can be a momentum builder. So I’m not going to change my game. I’ve been doing it for more than 100 games in the playoffs. So it’s just me going out and trying to help the team.”
Perry also scored a pivotal breakaway goal in Game 2, weaving around three Toronto players through the neutral zone and taking a stretch pass from defenseman Victor Hedman that gave Tampa Bay a two-goal lead early in the second period, helping quiet the crowd as Scotiabank Arena.
While opponents hate Perry when playing against him, his teammates — past and current — love him.
“I find that most of those guys (agitators) that are that way are some of the best guys off the ice,” Stars forward Tyler Seguin said. “Playing with guys way back in the day like (Boston forward) Brad Marchand, ‘The Rat,’ he’s one of my favorite teammates of all time.
“Then we’ve got ‘The Worm’ with Perry. He’s the same way. He works hard. He goes those dirty areas and sometimes gives you an extra whack as part of his game, but off the ice and with his teammates, he’s great.”
Aside from his “sneaky skills,” as linemate Pierre-Edouard Bellemare calls them, Perry has a rare attention to detail.
“Some guys went out the door (in the offseason) that were a calming presence on the team, and some guys came in, and he’s one of them,” coach Jon Cooper said. “It doesn’t seem like at any moment he’s ever fazed by anything. On the bench, he’s always talking. He’s like a pseudo assistant coach out there just because of his knowledge. He sees it.
“It’s his ‘been there done that’ (demeanor), but he carries such a weight of respect that when he speaks, which isn’t a ton, everybody listens. And then he backs it up with his playing on the ice and what a wonderful person he is, but he’s a fierce competitor. And the guys follow him.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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