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Lightning’s Yanni Gourde finding NHL success after a long road traveled

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If hockey hadn’t worked out for Tampa Bay Lightning forward Yanni Gourde, he would have found himself in the world of civil engineering.

“I like to understand how things work. I’m good at math, too, so it just interested me,” Gourde told Pro Hockey Talk on Friday.

There were plenty of times the thought of going to university passed through Gourde’s mind as he tried working his way up the hockey ladder to get a shot in the NHL. But the more he worked, the more he found himself going in the opposite direction.

Playing with the Victoriaville Tigres of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, Gourde finished his junior career in 2011-12 with 37 goals and a league-best 124 points, three years after going undrafted. That wasn’t enough to garner any interest from NHL teams and once again he went undrafted. But it wasn’t like the St-Narcisse, Quebec native was concerned.

“I was never really seen as a prospect. In junior I never really looked at me having a chance to get drafted,” he said. “I just went on and played my junior career and tried to play the best way that I could and eventually get a tryout somewhere. It wasn’t my primary concern. I just wanted to play hockey, help my team win and try to go deep in playoffs.”

After playing parts of two seasons with the American Hockey League’s Worcester Sharks following a tryout, Gourde found himself down in the ECHL with the Kalamazoo Wings trying to figure out how to climb his way back up.

“My first year in pro hockey I really learned a lot about myself and how I was playing the game,” he said. “I was trying too much, trying too hard to make everything happen every single shift. When you realize that, you’ve got to slow things down and play the right way and go one shift at a time, play the right way every time you step on the ice. From that moment I just realized that was the better way to play on the pro level.”

As an undrafted, unknown player, you don’t get a long leash in professional hockey like most draft picks. For Gourde, all 5-foot-9 of him, it was easy for him to be overlooked and discarded by teams, and moving further and further away from the NHL had him thinking a breakthrough would never happen.

“I had doubt in my mind every single day since my first game… It’s tough to know what’s going to happen and how it’s going to happen,” he said. “As an undrafted [player], never seen as a prospect, it’s tough to really see yourself as an NHL player and see [yourself] as a regular player. I’m never going to take the chance I have right now for granted.”

Gourde played well in the ECHL to catch some eyes and in March 2014 he signed a contract with the Lightning and proceeded to lead their AHL affiliate in Syracuse in goals (29) and finish second in scoring behind Jonathan Marchessault with 57 points.

After following up that first AHL season with two more strong campaigns, injuries allowed the Lightning to give Gourde an extended look last season. He scored six times and recorded eight points in 20 games before going back to Syracuse and helping the Crunch during their run to the Calder Cup Final. He would finish second in AHL scoring with 27 postseason points and earn a two-year, $2 million extension.

That brief experience at the NHL level did wonders for Gourde’s confidence.

“It was huge. That’s where I knew from that moment that I could play in the NHL and from after that I just need to play my game and play the right way and go out there with the best effort every night and hopefully things are going to work out for me,” he said.

The contract was a nice feeling of security, but if Gourde’s journey taught him anything, it was that nothing is guaranteed. He understood that his spot on the Lightning wasn’t set in stone, and despite a new deal he could find himself once again moving in the wrong direction on hockey’s ladder.

While the Lightning are a much healthier team than a year ago, Gourde has carved out a spot as a regular in Jon Cooper’s lineup. His production — 22 goals, 43 points in 58 games — has entered his name in the long list of Calder Trophy candidates. While he’s eligible for the award at age 26 by three months, that’s not the trophy he’s thinking about receiving in June.

“To be honest, I don’t really think about [rookie of the year],” said Gourde, who’s fourth in rookie scoring. “Every day I’m coming to the rink, I go out on the ice and I want to get better. I don’t really look too much into stats and into what’s going on around in the league. I want to play my game. I want to be the best version of myself and try to get better. It’s flattering to be even just mentioned in those types of things but I just want to play good for my team and help my team win.”

Fine. Let his coach be his Calder hype man: ”Individual awards are garnered a ton because of the team’s success, and our team has had a lot of success, and Yanni Gourde has been a big part of it,” Cooper said earlier this month.

Gourde is just one of a number of Lightning players having outstanding seasons beyond the big names. Braydon Point and Vladislav Namestnikov have 39 goals combined and rookie defenseman Mikhail Sergachev has 30 points and is logging nearly 16 minutes a night.

The Lightning have the most points in the NHL (81) as of Friday and have positioned themselves as a Cup favorite in part because they aren’t being carried by just their top lines. Everyone is pitching in and the continued production of their depth will take this team far.

“All four lines are really good. Our top eight D are very good, too, and both of our goalies are excellent. It’s the depth of this organization and the way we come up together,” Gourde said. “We want to win games. We want to be dominant. We want to step on the ice and be the best team out there.

“It’s our mentality, how we approach games, and that’s been helping us win those games and trying to be consistent. We’re never satisfied, we always want [to be] better.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

The Buzzer: Murray shuts out Leafs; Raanta spoils Crawford’s return

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Three Stars

1. Matt Murray, Pittsburgh Penguins. It has been a tough start to the season for Pittsburgh Penguins goalie Matt Murray. When he has been in the lineup, he has not played well. Then he was sidelined with the third concussion of his career and missed three consecutive games. Then he had to return to the lineup, on the road, against the highest scoring team in the NHL, the Toronto Maple Leafs. How did that return to the lineup go? He stopped all 38 shots he faced and was sensational in the Penguins’ 3-0 win. He looked like the two-time Stanley Cup winning goalie in this game.

2. Gabriel Landeskog, Colorado Avalanche. The Colorado Avalanche and New Jersey Devils were two of the most surprising playoff teams in the NHL a year ago, and were both led by MVP caliber performances from their best players (Nathan MacKinnon and Taylor Hall respectively, with Hall actually winning the award). They faced off in New Jersey on Thursday night and it was the Avalanche coming away with the win, handing the Devils their first loss of the season. MacKinnon and Hall both had big games (Hall had three points; MacKinnon had two) but it was Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog that was the star in this one, recording a hat trick, including two goals in the third period as the Avalanche rallied for the win. His goals in the third period were the game-tying and game-winning goals.

3. Logan Couture, San Jose Sharks. The other hat trick of the night belonged to San Jose Sharks forward Logan Couture in his team’s rout of the Buffalo Sabres. This game was a laugher from the beginning as the Sabres were just completely overmatched against a far superior team. It all started with a Buffalo double-minor in the opening minutes of the game that the Sharks turned into two quick power play goals, including Couture’s first. He added his second goal early in the third period and then completed the hat trick with an empty-net goal. He now has four goals on the season. This was also a big night for the Sharks power play as it scored three goals in the win.

Red Wings remain winless

There are only two winless teams remaining in the NHL — the Florida Panthers and the Detroit Red Wings. The Panthers had Thursday night off. The Red Wings did not. Their season-opening losing streak continued with a 3-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning, dropping them to 0-5-2 on the season with what is — by far — a league-worst minus-18 goal differential. No other team in the league has a goal differential worse than minus-10. The Buffalo Sabres and Los Angeles Kings are tied for second-worst at minus-9. Speaking of the Kings…

The Kings look awful

General manager Rob Blake has not been happy his team’s performance so far this season, and they responded on Thursday night by getting completely dominated by the New York Islanders in what was a completely embarrassing 7-2 loss. They did not have Anze Kopitar as he was sidelined due to illness, and it was goalie Jonathan Quick‘s first game back from injury, but there is no excuse for how bad the rest of the team performed. The Kings cut what was a 3-1 deficit to just a single goal early in the third period, but then completely unraveled in the minutes after that by giving up four consecutive goals in eight minutes. There is nothing positive about this team right now.

Highlights of the Night

The highlight of the night was Anthony Duclair‘s goal against the Philadelphia Flyers. This is just ridiculous, one of the many great goals they scored on the night.

The other highlight of the night: Connor McDavid, doing Connor McDavid things. He is completely unstoppable right now, stealing wins for the Oilers every night.

Factoids

Corey Crawford made his return to the Chicago Blackhawks’ lineup on Thursday night and played pretty well in a 4-1 loss (he played better than the final score would indicate, anyway). It was the Blackhawks’ first regulation loss of the season and it came at the hands of Crawford’s former backup, Antti Raanta, who was absolutely outstanding for the Arizona Coyotes. He also loves playing at the United Center.

Speaking of the Coyotes, their four goals on Thursday night were more goals than the scored (three) in the first five games of the season. Combined. They also scored their first even-strength goals of the season in the win.

More Connor McDavid stats.

 

Scores

Pittsburgh Penguins 3, Toronto Maple Leafs 0

Colorado Avalanche 5, New Jersey Devils 3

Columbus Blue Jackets 6, Philadelphia Flyers 3

Tampa Bay Lightning 3, Detroit Red Wings 1

Winnipeg Jets 4, Vancouver Canucks 1

Arizona Coyotes 4, Chicago Blackhawks 1

Edmonton Oilers 3, Boston Bruins 2 (OT)

San Jose Sharks 5, Buffalo Sabres 1

New York Islanders 7, Los Angeles Kings 2

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Connor McDavid ruined the Bruins’ overtime

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Two nights ago Connor McDavid single-handedly stole a win for the Edmonton Oilers when he put the team on his back and helped it overcome a three-goal third period deficit against the Winnipeg Jets.

He helped do it all again on Thursday night in the Oilers’ home opener.

McDavid finished with another two-point night in the 3-2 overtime win against the Boston Bruins, assisting on the Oilers’ second goal in regulation and the winner in overtime. That gives him 11 points on the season. An impressive number on its own after only five games, and even more so when you remember the Oilers, even after Thursday’s win, have only scored 13 goals as a team. It was the play that McDavid made in overtime on Thursday that is going to steal the show in this win because he completely ruined the Bruins’ chances at both ends of the ice.

Have a look at the entire sequence that begins with McDavid picking off a stretch pass for Patrice Bergeron, dancing around Brad Marchand at the blue line, and then freezing the lone defender back and the goaltender to set up Leon Draisaitl for the game-winning goal.

Just look at this effort.

That is the best player in the world playing like it.

The Edmonton Oilers are now 3-2-0 on the season and they have McDavid to thank for most of it.

If he does not pick that pass off in the neutral zone, Bergeron walks in alone for a breakaway. Just like that, it was going the other way.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Toronto’s early goalie pull backfires with Kadri own goal

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One of the big early trends in the NHL this season is coaches opting to pull their goalie earlier than usual in an effort to get a late game-tying goal. Traditionally, teams would only go for the extra attacker in the final minute when down by a goal, and maybe go with two minutes if they were down by more.

Now, teams seem to be going for the extra attacker with two to three minutes to play (or more) when down by just a single goal. It is not exactly a new strategy — Patrick Roy used to do it all the time with the Colorado Avalanche — but it is definitely catching on more and more.

On Thursday night in Toronto with the Maple Leafs trailing the Pittsburgh Penguins 1-0, coach Mike Babcock elected to pull Frederik Andersen with three minutes to play in search of the equalizer. It did not work. Not only did the Maple Leafs fail to score, but Nazem Kadri accidentally scored an own goal from the neutral zone when this happened.

That is unfortunate. Especially when you consider Kadri is still searching for his first goal of the season.

Well … first goal into the correct net.

The goal ended up being credited to Evgeni Malkin, his second goal of the game, since he was the most recent Penguins player to touch the puck.

Babcock would pull Andersen again right after that, resulting in Kris Letang adding a more traditional empty net goal for the Penguins (the 100th goal of his career) to give them a 3-0 win.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Watch Blue Jackets score two ridiculous highlight reel goals against Flyers

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Say this for the Philadelphia Flyers: Their games are never boring.

Their combination of skilled forwards, young defense, and perpetually shaking goaltending situation can produce some wild, back-and-forth games where you can expect a lot of chances, a lot of goals, and a lot of madness.

Sometimes that means they will do incredible things.

Sometimes that means somebody will do incredible things against them. On Thursday night in Columbus there was a lot of the latter happening.

First, we have Anthony Duclair scoring what might be the best goal of the young season with an incredible individual effort included him falling to the ice, somehow managing to stickhandle through a phone booth, then getting a shot on goal while falling to the ice and beating Flyers goalie Calvin Pickard.

Columbus is the fourth organization that Duclair has played for in his young career as he still tries to find a consistent role. He is obviously a talented player and has shown a lot of potential at different times throughout his career, and this is almost certainly the signature play of his career to this point.

Shortly after that, though, the Blue Jackets allowed Philadelphia to regain the lead on a Sean Couturier goal that was mostly just a giant whiff by Sergei Bobrovsky. His teammates managed to help him a bit in the second period, specifically forward Cam Atkinson, who scored a pair of goals in the first five minutes of the period.

The first one was off a nice looking play set up by Artemi Panarin.

The second one was this, that saw him fly in and dangle around Pickard to give the Blue Jackets their first lead of the game. It looks even better on the replays.

Nick Foligno would add another goal for the Blue Jackets not long after.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.