As the trade deadline approached in late March, Stan Butler was a busy man.

The longtime junior coach, who has spent most of his career in Brampton or North Bay in the Ontario Hockey League, received calls from a number of teams asking about the same guy:


Butler had coached Paul for three years, and NHL teams remembered him playing with Barclay Goodrow, who ended up being a massive lineup addition for the Lightning in 2020. They thought Paul could do that too. the difference. The clubs therefore asked Butler how he coached. (“Easy, like Barclay. If you got a team full of those guys, you wouldn’t have gray hair.”) Then they popped the money question:

How is he in big games?

“He’s built for the playoffs,” Butler said. “He likes the pressure.”

Paul’s hometown of the Maple Leafs found out the hard way. Veteran Corey Perry says if you shine in Game 7, they’ll remember your name forever, and no one in Tampa Bay will forget Paul, whose two goals and brilliant all-around performance lifted the Lightning to a victory 2-1 over the Leafs at a surprisingly quiet Scotiabank Arena on Saturday. Tampa Bay will face the Panthers, winners of the Presidents’ Trophy, in the second round. It’s only Paul’s first glimpse of the NHL playoffs, but the Tampa Bay deadline addition fits right in with the bold and determined effort provided by the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions, who have allowed only one goal in the last five periods of the series.

No forward has played more minutes in the biggest game of the season than Paul (22:03). He was the first over the boards for the penalty kill, and when Tampa Bay had to close the game, Paul was on the ice for 2:56 of the final 3:50.

“It’s all on the line. It’s Game 7,” Paul said. “I’m not going to change the way I play. I played my heart out, I had chances, and tonight they just happen to come in.

The Lightning were humiliated, pushed to the brink by the Leafs in seven games, but they just wouldn’t die, overcoming a 3-2 series deficit. Sometimes it took more sandpaper than stars, more blocked shots than big plays. Andrei Vasilevskiy saved his best game for last, with his 30 saves reminiscent of many during his Conn Smythe-worthy playoffs a summer ago. But with star center Brayden Point leaving the game in the first period with an injury, it was Paul and the rest of the group who rallied behind him and stopped 25 shots.

“Tampa Bay knows how to win,” Wayne Gretzky said on TNT.

Coach Jon Cooper said before the game that his group was on the “point of greatness”, and when you’re in position, “why the hell don’t you charge through that door?” It took everything Tampa Bay had, with Steven Stamkos calling it one of the toughest series they’ve ever played, and they wouldn’t be talking about a hat-trick yet without Paul.

“Something that’s not mentioned is that some players like (Paul) weren’t there, and that’s the motivation. “Let’s give these guys a chance at the Cup,” Stamkos said. “Let’s take (Corey Perry) another one. Let’s take (Pierre-Edouard Bellemare) one. Let’s take one for Brian Elliott. The list continues.

“That’s part of the motivating factor. Once you put on that Bolts uniform, it really is a new year. It’s going to be as hard as ever.”

Paul grew up in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga and wanted to wear a Leafs uniform.

He was a youth teammate with Carolina forward Max Domi, the son of former Leaf Tie Domi, so Paul got to see the NHL up close. Paul met some of the players and got a taste of the dream he’s had so many times playing in the neighborhood driveway or rink with his brother Jesse.

But Paul, like a few other Lightning playoff heroes, didn’t seem destined for professional hockey. When Paul, who was 5-foot-6 and awkward in midget, didn’t get drafted in bantam, it stung. Three hundred and two children were called, but not him. His parents told him he had 48 hours to be upset and then he had to do something about it.

Paul didn’t need to sleep on it to know how he felt.

“I do,” he told them. “I want it 100%.”

He just needed someone to want him.

That big break came about 20 miles from where Paul played the game of his life on Saturday night. It was the Chesswood Arena, an ice rink in North York with four ice caps. Ten years ago, Butler was in Chesswood to scout for another minor midget match, which was delayed. So he went to the sheet where Paul was playing. Butler asked other scouts if they knew him – no – but thought he’d give it a look.

“He was a good player on a bad team,” Butler said. “But he had potential.”

What Butler found in Paul was a solid 200-footer. He was versatile and strong. Paul formed a dynamic line with Gordon, now with Rangers, with the two making life hell for everyone they met. Butler could count on Paul to face Connor McDavid. In Paul’s last playoff appearance before this series, in the 2015 OHL playoffs, Paul’s team in North Bay lost in the Conference Finals to eventual champion Oshawa, led by the Paul’s current teammate, Anthony Cirelli.

The Oshawa coach? The same Paul had had the last three years in Ottawa.

“I trusted him,” said DJ Smith. “He is responsible, he has his hands clenched and he is striated. He knows that when he’s not scoring he can do the little things that make an impact. He’s the kind of guy you win with.

The Lightning likely wouldn’t have won the last two Cup championships if it weren’t for deadline-day acquisitions like Goodrow and Blake Coleman.

And this group, if able to pull off a historic treble, will likely consider the Paul and Brandon Hagel deals as iconic moments. You won’t get this far without depth, and Tampa Bay badly needed it on Saturday night.

It started in the first period, when Point ran into the left side of the Leafs’ end zone on a play he made a million times. But as Point came to a stop, his right leg got awkwardly caught on the boards and he fell hard in visible pain. The sight of Point — the Lightning’s center and No. 1 engine up front — hobbling off the ice could have been a devastating blow for Tampa Bay, especially given the circumstances.

But as Point walked to the locker room, Cal Foote said the team rallied around him saying “Play for Pointer.” Point, the team’s top scorer in the past two playoffs, tried to come back for the start of the second but struggled to get through a substitution. He laid his head on the bench, visibly moved, with teammates like Cirelli trying to console him. The fact that Point remained, at full speed, on the bench the rest of the game as a “cheerleader” was a great inspiration to the team. “That says it all about our team,” said Victor Hedman.

And Point.

“There’s no worse feeling for a player than not being there with the guys in games like this,” said Stamkos, who also remained on the bench after picking up an injury in the game. of the 2020 Cup Final. “Especially for Pointer, who is just a warrior and does so many little things, just to see him suffer like this is (difficult). Give our group credit. We would have could tell us, ‘Oh, Pointer is out, it’s going to be one of those nights.’ We didn’t. We fell back on the standard set for this group, which is (do) whatever it takes to win. It doesn’t matter who or how, it’s just to win.

The surprising “who” soon became Paul.

Paul scored the game’s first goal in the final two minutes of the first period, bouncing off a rebound and turning it around. The Lightning entered Game 7 ready to win 2-1 or 1-0, and the team that scored first in this series had won five of the first six games. But Cooper said the biggest moment was when Paul scored for the second time, late in the second and just three minutes after Morgan Rielly had leveled it.

Unlike the previous two games, in which the Lightning lost a two-goal lead, Paul’s goal — he sent the puck to his stick from his skate into the slot and finished — allowed Tampa Bay to regain the game for good. The goal wasn’t as flashy as Paul’s crotch, no-look assist and crotch shot on the stretch, but it certainly showed a bit of swagger.

Paul feels like he plays better when there is pressure, and he has a gold medal at the world junior championships and the gold medal goal for Canada at the world championships to prove it. . He now has his first signing moment in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. And Tampa Bay hopes there will be plenty more, with both Paul, a UFA pending, and the team having a mutual interest in him sticking around beyond this year.

“He’s a player. That’s probably the best way to describe him,” Paul’s linemate Ross Colton said. “He lives for those big moments. We acquired him for a reason and you can. see today.

Paul was on his way to an anniversary dinner with his parents and fiancée, Janessa, on Sunday, March 20, when he learned he was being traded from Ottawa to the Lightning. He had tried to get an extension with the Senators, the team that had offered him his first shot. But after spending most of dinner at the Keg on the phone sorting out his major move, Paul toasted champagne and cake with his parents at his home.

“They are the double Cup champions,” said his mother, Melinda. “And they want you.”

Saturday, everyone saw why.

(Photo by Nick Paul: Nick Turchiaro/USA Today)

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