TAMPA — Ross Colton is no longer the wide-eyed rookie he was last postseason. He no longer carries that happy-to-be-here demeanor. When the Lightning lose, he’s as angry as the veterans around him and equally determined to show more in the next game.
But there’s still something about the playoffs that brings out the kid in the 25-year-old, and it seems to bring out the best in Colton in some of the most critical moments.
It might not seem like 10 months since Colton scored the Stanley Cup-clinching goal in Game 5 of the 2021 final against Montreal, earning the right to hoist the Cup in celebration at Amalie Arena, then enjoying his first championship boat parade days later.
But Colton has come a long way in the time since. He’s established himself as a 20-goal scorer while continuing to play a brand of disciplined, hard-nosed hockey that allowed coach Jon Cooper to trust him across any of the team’s four forward lines.
Colton has scored three goals in the first four games of this postseason, including the eventual game-winner in a 7-3 victory over the Maple Leafs Sunday in Game 4. He’s been the glue that’s bonded a line with newcomers Nick Paul and Brandon Hagel that seems to get better with each game.
“He scored one of the most historic goals, a game-winner, in the Stanley Cup final, yes, but that doesn’t make him a big-time playoff performer,” Cooper said. “You’ve got to do it again. But now, he’s showing he is doing it again.”
Colton clearly is embracing the spotlight of the postseason.
“Growing up, just watching playoff hockey, there’s just a different kind of energy that I’ve always wanted to be a part of,” he said after Game 4. “So now, I just get super excited even more to be a part of it and kind of do whatever I can to help the team. I don’t know, I just get excited to come to the rink and work with the rest of the guys.”
Colton has enthusiastic goal celebrations, and the first of his two goals Sunday was a big one.
After the Lightning jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first eight minutes, the game started to tighten up. When defenseman Cal Foote kept the puck alive in the neutral zone early in the second period, Hagel found Colton at the blue line as he drove toward the net. Colton then whipped a wrist shot from the left circle off goaltender Jack Campbell’s glove.
Colton later beat defenseman Morgan Rielly down the ice to tuck in an empty-net goal. Add his power-play goal in Game 3, and Colton has scored in each of his last three home playoff games dating back to last season.
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“I think it’s kind of just the energy in the building and stuff like that,” Colton said. “You play such a long season, and it’s grueling and it’s obviously tough on the body and the mind. But you go through all that sacrifice, you block those shots and you do the extra work for times like this.”
Contributions from players like Colton can make a difference in a tight playoff series, and he always has made the most of his ice time, from his fourth-line role as a rookie to moving across lines, playing center or wing this season. In Game 4, Colton’s line contained the Leafs’ speedy and physical third line of Ilya Mikheyev, David Kampf and Pierre Engvall, holding it without a point.
“I think at times here, you’re when you have some of the forwards we have up front that gobble up some of the ice time, you’ve got to make the best of what you get,” Cooper said. “But you can see the assignments he’s been on and what they’ve had to do, and and he’s been worthy of all the ice time and the accolades he’s been getting because those are the guys you win with in the playoffs — especially when those top guys kind of cancel each other out. Who’s gonna step up after that?”
Colton has carried a strong finish to the regular season into the playoffs. He scored 11 of his 22 goals in the final 18 games, including three two-goal games. He had one of his best performances of the regular season against Toronto, a two-goal, one-assist effort in an 8-1 trouncing of the Leafs April 21 in Tampa.
Veteran forward Pat Maroon called Colton “a gamer.”
“He shows up in big times and big moments,” Maroon said. “... He’s scoring some big-time goals for us. ... We need everyone in the postseason. We need all four lines. You need guys coming up in key moments. You can’t just rely on your all stars all the time. And Ross has done a good job of kind of bringing everyone together.”
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