The 21-year-old, a 2012 fourth-round pick who had played in only two NHL games prior to this season, tried to immediately show Lightning coach Jon Cooper why he belonged in the league.
“He [was] pissing me off in training camp,” center Brian Boyle said. “I was like, ‘Who the hell is this kid?’”
The reaction by his veteran teammate didn’t faze Paquette in the least.
“I was there to make the team, I didn’t care who was in front of me,” he said. “I was going to push him, cross-check him, even if it was Boyle.”
Paquette’s determination in camp never faded. Lightning captain Steven Stamkos now includes the rookie center among the players he says “are finally getting rewarded for how hard they’re working,” adding, “you know what you’re going to get from him” every game and can count on him.
Paquette began the season with the Lightning’s AHL team, the Syracuse Crunch, but quickly earned a call-up on Nov. 5 after putting up four goals, seven points and a +8 in five games. “Going down and being recalled, since then I’ve matured,” he said after Tampa Bay's 3–2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final. “I was just trying to make the team and it didn’t happen. I went down, I dominated I can say, it went well, my two-way game was there. Jon watched those games and was happy with my performance."
In 64 regular-season games with Tampa Bay, Paquette demonstrated some offensive flair along with solid defensive skills that earned Cooper's trust, enabling the coach to frequently match him up against the opposing team’s top center. On Monday night, Paquette scored the game-winning goal and helped the Lightning take back home ice from the Blackhawks in their best-of-seven series. After winning a face-off against Patrick Sharp during the third period, he found himself between two Chicago defenders in front of goalie Corey Crawford where he took Victor Hedman’s pass from the left corner and sent a one-timer into the net at 16:49.
Paquette, who also scored in Game 2 of the series, has also been called upon to match up against Jonathan Toews, who Tampa Bay defenseman Anton Stralman calls “maybe the best centerman in the league." The kid has hardly been intimidated by the assignment, saying it has been a lot of fun to play against Toews who he watched win the Conn Smythe Trophy while leading the Blackhawks to the Cup in 2010 and saw as a dominant force.
On Monday night, in a nod at the effectiveness of Paquette and his linemates Ryan Callahan and J.T. Brown, Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville used his last change to stay away from the matchup that had dogged Chicago in Games 1 and 2.
“We didn’t play quite as much against [Toews] tonight because of the line changes,” Paquette said. “I think Jon (Cooper) told himself, ‘F-- it, we’ve got four lines that can play against anybody.’”
“Obviously scoring the winning goal is really special, every hockey player dreams of that and it’s the same for me,” he said. “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.”
Looking back to training camp and how far he has come, Paquette noted how “incredible the emotions” have been since the beginning of the season. “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 Final.”
Said Stralman, “He’s really easy to play defense and in the corners with, because he’s very responsible in that way and sacrifices his body taking shots. I bet he’s a real tough player to play against.”
The Blackhawks probably won't argue with that, and if they've wondered like Brian Boyle did who the hell this kid is, they're learning fast.