SUNRISE — Every hockey player grows old, that’s a given. The body slows down, the skills deteriorate.
You might beat the odds to reach the NHL, you might beat the guys in the other uniform most nights, you might even beat the injuries, surgeries and rehabs that inevitably come your way.
But you don’t beat the calendar. Not over the long term.
So who wants to explain this to Corey Perry?
Three years after meeting his expiration date in Anaheim, Perry is Tampa Bay’s second-leading goal scorer through the first nine games of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
He did it again in a 2-1 Game 2 victory against Florida on Thursday night. Twelve minutes into a scoreless game, he staked out his position in front of Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and redirected a Steven Stamkos pass into the back of the net for his fourth goal of the postseason.
This isn’t natural. Not for a guy who turned 37 a few days ago. There are only two skaters still around in the NHL’s second round who are older — including Tampa Bay’s Pierre-Edouard Bellemare — and combined they have half as many goals as Perry.
It’s as if he has been born again in the spring of his 17th NHL season.
Perry’s 19 goals in the regular season were his most since 2017, and his 49th career postseason goal on Thursday night ties him for sixth among active players, in the company of stars such as Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Patrick Kane and Patrice Bergeron.
“He’s been a helluva add for us,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said a few days ago. “When I look at where he ended up statistically at the end of the year, that was icing on the cake. Bringing him in for what he brings to our locker room, and his pedigree is as advertised.
“But his on-ice product has been better than I imagined. That’s been typical him. Big moments, big times, Perry is there.”
His goal in the series opener on Tuesday night tied the score in the second period just minutes after Florida had threatened to take a two-goal lead. Thursday night’s power-play goal grabbed the momentum at a time when the Panthers were outshooting the Lightning by a wide margin.
Perry began the year as a fourth-line player, but he’s now taken the place of the injured Brayden Point on the No. 1 power-play unit.
“(Perry) has jumped in that spot before so it’s not like he’s unfamiliar,” Cooper said. “Let’s be honest, you miss a guy like Brayden Point. But if you’re going to have the success we’ve had over the years … this group has found a way to fill in the gaps.”
Neither play was particularly flashy. In fact, the assists by Nikita Kucherov in Game 1 and Stamkos in Game 2 had the higher degree of difficulty. But that’s sort of the point. Perry was in position to score those goals because he’s always in the right place on the ice.
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“If I sit here and talk about what Perry means to us, I could be here a while,” defenseman Ryan McDonagh said earlier in the postseason.
“His experience speaks volumes, his awareness on the ice, his reads on the ice. Just his feel for the game within the game, whether one team has the momentum or not, how do we get it back? How do we keep it on our side? How do we make them pay when it’s going our way? Just a great awareness.”
These qualities have been a part of Perry’s game forever, and I suppose that’s what makes him seem so remarkable in 2022. He is more than a decade removed from his MVP season in Anaheim, and he’s been more of a grinder than a goal scorer for much of that time.
Knee injuries slowed him down in his final years in Anaheim, enough so that the team was willing to buy out the final two years of his eight-year, $69 million contract just to have a clean break.
But that’s where the story turns a little nutty.
Perry went to Dallas in 2020 and helped the Stars reach the Stanley Cup final against Tampa Bay. Then he went to Montreal in 2021 and was a huge part of another Cup final run.
Now, he’s shooting for a third consecutive championship round with a third different team.
But, considering the resume, maybe it isn’t so nutty after all.
Perry is one of only a handful of players to have won a Stanley Cup, an Olympic gold medal, a World Championship, a World Cup, a Memorial Cup and a World Junior Championship.
There isn’t much he hasn’t done, seen or won on a sheet of ice.
Well, except for this.
During warmups for Game 2 on Thursday night, Perry fired a shot at the net during a routine drill and the puck bounced off the crossbar and came back to hit him in the head.
He went into the dressing room, got a handful of stitches above his right eye, then came back out and scored a goal with a huge welt on his head.
“That was a first,” Perry said. “You play this game long enough, you’re going to see a couple of firsts. It was my own shot, hit the crossbar and came back and I couldn’t react quick enough. It is what it is, and you move on. Get a couple of minutes of warmup and away you go.”
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