CHICAGO -- Had you told Cedric Paquette back in training camp that he would score two goals in the opening three games of the Stanley Cup finals nine months later, the Tampa Bay Lightning rookie definitely wouldn't have believed it.
"I would have said that he’s crazy," Paquette said in French on Monday night after scoring the game-winner. "I really couldn’t have predicted that."
How could he, since he didn’t even make the team out of camp, beginning the season in the AHL.
Paquette’s goal with 3 minutes, 11 seconds to go in the third period capped a thrilling 3-2 win in Game 3 over the Chicago Blackhawks, giving the young Bolts a 2-1 series lead over the favored vets.
"It’s as if I’m not feeling a thing right now, it’s incredible the emotions since the beginning of the season," Paquette said. "Going down [to the AHL] and being recalled, since then I’ve matured. And even when things weren’t going as well at the start of the playoffs I just kept my game simple and I think I’m being rewarded since the start of the finals."
The hero on this night is making quite a name for himself on the biggest stage of his life. One in a long line of Tampa Bay draft picks coming through the system, the 21-year-old from Gaspe, Quebec, was a fourth-round pick (101st overall) in the 2012 draft.
"He kind of flies under the radar with this group we have in here with the amount of talent that we have, but all year he's been huge for us defensively," said linemate Ryan Callahan, who played another outstanding game and scored the first goal of the game. "He's chipped in and he's kind of come out a bit here in this series. I think everybody is starting to realize what we've known all along, how good he is."
Centering the team’s third line between Callahan and J.T. Brown, Paquette has been the most surprising story so far in this championship series.
"I can't say enough, honestly," Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said. "He's been stepping up these three games. I don't think anybody saw that coming and it's really fun to watch. We knew he was a big player for us, really solid defensively and going up against the best centerman in the league and doing that job unbelievably well. It's really fun to see."
After facing Toews’ top line in the opening two games, Paquette didn’t get as much of the Blackhawks captain in Game 3 because Chicago used its last line change to get him away from Paquette at times.
"I remember when they won the Cup in 2010, I followed that really closely and I thought he was really dominating," Paquette said of Toews. "To play against him and have a defensive role against him, it’s a lot of fun. It’s fun to get people talking about me a little and playing against him is a good challenge."
Paquette’s linemates, Callahan and Brown, have been tremendous, too. Suddenly after their top two lines did all the scoring for the first three rounds of the playoffs, Tampa finally -- finally! -- is getting bottom-six production.
"We wanted to get on the score sheet, that was a key for us in these Stanley Cup finals," said Brown, whose game has grown in these playoffs. "We’ve let the top guys do their jobs but we wanted to also chip in. I think we’ve been a lot better at that."
And there’s Callahan, the former New York Rangers captain whose lack of production in the first couple of rounds led to some criticism.
He came alive in the second half of the Eastern Conference finals versus the Rangers and has stepped it up another notch in the past few games of the Cup finals.
"Well, he's a gamer," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "That's the word. He's a gamer. I'm sure he's been frustrated. But we had a talk a couple games ago, after Game 1. ... They need help. I'm not just speaking [about] Callahan, it's Brown and Paquette, [Brian] Boyle, [Jonathan] Drouin, guys that get not as many minutes but have big-time assignments."
"But we need them to chip in a little bit. Callahan led the charge. I can't say enough about that kid. No secret why he was captain of the New York Rangers. You need guys that can play the 200 feet and make sacrifices for the team. When things aren't going well personally or statistically, they find a way."
Callahan has had to adjust to a new role, too. After playing the entire season on the Stamkos line, Callahan was demoted to a third-line role in Game 5 against the Montreal Canadiens in the second round and has stayed there ever since.
"You continue to play your game no matter what line you're on," said Callahan, whose first-period slap shot was an absolute rocket past Corey Crawford. "There's no question I struggled to produce a little early in these playoffs and I understand the switch, trying to get things going. I'm willing to do whatever I can to help this team win. Whether it's the first line or fourth line or any line in between, I've gotta play my game. That's the only way I'm successful."
Paquette knows he has to play his game, too, which means he’s not going to let the sudden goal-scoring get to his head.
There he was late in the game Monday night with a key blocked shot to help preserve the win.
"Obviously scoring the winning goal is really special, every hockey player dreams of that and it’s the same for me," said Paquette, who had 12 goals in 64 regular-season games. "But blocking shots is my job. Even though I score a goal, I’m not going to change my role on this team. I’m not going to score 50 goals next year. I’m still there to block shots late in games."
Look out folks, the young Lightning suddenly have three lines scoring for the first time in these playoffs. The task just got taller for the Blackhawks.