TAMPA — It was exactly a year ago Saturday when Brandon Hagel was traded to the Lightning, packing his bags and heading to a new team not really knowing what to expect.
The 25-year-old forward has emerged as the Lightning’s Swiss Army Knife, able to flourish in different roles. And on Saturday night against the Canadiens, hats rained from the seating bowl of Amalie Arena onto the ice late in the third period as his empty-net goal gave him his second career hat trick in a 5-3 Lightning victory.
Since rejoining the Lightning’s top scoring line, playing again with Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov, Hagel has four goals ― including two game-winners — and six points. Hagel now has 27 goals this season, tied for third most on the team.
The past year has turned out pretty well for Hagel, who has emerged as one of the Lightning’s top all-around players.
“I wouldn’t have traded it for the world,” Hagel said. “I couldn’t have come to a better place. I’m so happy playing with guys that know how to win. I’ve got a coach that knows how to win. Can’t make this up.”
Less than two weeks ago, the Lightning were in trouble. Winless in five straight games, their confidence was sinking. Now, they have won three straight and seem to have turned the corner.
“That tough stretch there was hard on all of us, especially when there’s games every other night,” Hagel said. “It wasn’t fun, but the best part about it was that there were games every night so it didn’t feel like we were in it too long. But we were able to find a way and here we are and hopefully we can roll with it.”
After two hard-earned wins in New Jersey earlier this week, the Lightning came into the beginning of the third period trailing the Canadiens by a goal. Tampa Bay controlled the puck in the final 20 minutes and outshot Montreal 16-4.
“I think we just stepped on the gas in the third,” said Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman, who scored his seventh goal of the season in the first period. “These are tough games. There’s not an easy game in this league. We knew we were gonna have our hands full but, yeah, liked our response in the third.”
Hagel gave the Lightning a 2-1 lead at the 4:50 mark in the second, jumping on a Nikita Kucherov shot attempt that hit off the end wall and back to Hagel below the right circle.
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Montreal rallied with two goals in the second, and the Lightning trailed 3-2 after Jesse Ylonen’s power-play goal with 7:37 remaining in the second.
“Montreal defends,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “Their team competed really hard, so we had to match their compete or it was going to be trouble for us and I thought in the third we did. And we just managed the puck and took care of it.”
After Steven Stamkos’ 30th goal of the season, scored on the power play from his spot in the left circle, tied it at 3-3, Hagel drifted in front of the goal and tipped in Mikhail Sergachev’s puck on net for his second goal of the game.
Montreal pulled its goaltender for an extra attacker in the final minutes down one, and Hagel stole the puck away from Ylonen at the left point and took it into the neutral zone before filling the empty net for his second career hat trick — and the second hat trick by a Lightning player this season. Stamkos also had three goals on Jan. 18 in Vancouver, the same night he scored his 500th career goal.
“What’s great about Hags is you can put him anywhere,” Cooper said. “You put them on different lines and he blossoms in different roles. Kuch and Pointer are gifted players and you have to be able to play at a high level to have success with those guys. And he has found a way to do that.”
The comeback win provided a happy ending to this weekend’s inaugural Hall of Fame festivities — the Lightning inducted Phil Esposito, Marty St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier in their first class — and the most attended alumni weekend that brought 38 former members of the organization back to Tampa.
“It’s a trip down memory lane for sure,” Hedman said. “You’re starting to feel a little bit more when you see all those clips, from ‘09 when you get drafted until now. Seems like forever ago and pretty much is. For me, it’s just unbelievable to see all those guys.”
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