Talk about a good time to have the best game of your life.
Three goals in 22 games. Limited ice time. No previous NHL playoff experience. Just four games of pro playoff hockey before this summer.
You just need to be in the right spot at the right time. And that's exactly what Ross Colton did on Wednesday evening.
Colton is a Stanley Cup champion, but he'll forever join a special group of players scoring Stanley Cup-clinching goals. It's a dream everyone has growing up, and he got to live that reality.
It's a moment he likely never dreamed of. Colton spent significant time on the taxi squad, finishing the season with nine goals and 12 points in 30 games. If you bet on him to be the guy responsible for scoring the game-winning goal at literally any point in this series, you need to enter every lottery humanly possible because those odds were definitely not in your favor.
Colton, a fourth-round pick by Tampa back in 2016, took the patient route to the NHL. Taking the prep school route to the USHL, Colton spent two seasons with the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders, scoring 35 goals and 66 points in his final year before heading off to the NCAA. Colton was a solid goal-scorer in junior, but how well would that translate to the higher levels? Clearly, well enough. He had 28 goals in two seasons with the University of Vermont before turning pro in 2018. In 131 games played, Colton had 26 goals and 76 points for a 0.58 points-per-game average – solid numbers, but nothing overly special.
But once he got the chance to show what he could do in the Stanley Cup playoffs, he didn't disappoint. Despite only having just six points, he led all Tampa forwards with a goals-for percentage at 5-on-5 with 69.23. Colton averaged just 9:51 of 5-on-5 ice time per game, but his 7.93 shots-per-60 was good for third on Tampa – given his ice time, he still found a way to make his presence known. He wasn't afraid to use his 200-plus-pound frame to his advantage and he spent a big portion of his time pissing off Montreal's defenseman with his relentless attack.
Throughout his development years, Colton often finished first or second in team scoring, whether it was during his time in the NCAA or as a sophomore in the AHL. His game was built around being a strong, physical center that could bring skill to a bottom-six with a great release. Colton was a bit of a long shot to make the team from the onset. He never made The Hockey News' Future Watch after signing his first NHL contract and even some Tampa Bay-based outlets wrote him off entirely.
Well, now everyone knows his name.
When all the focus throughout the final series was Tampa Bay's cap situation, players like Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman, Jan Rutta and Colton, to name a few, were some of the most important players on the ice in a given game. That's what Tampa has done so well amidst cap criticism: they've found diamonds that can come up in a big way and that bodes well for a team that'll need to make some big cap decisions in the near future.
Colton became just the seventh rookie in NHL history – and second in the league's modern era – to score the Stanley Cup-clinching goal. No matter what happens in the rest of his career, he'll have that legacy. Everyone will remember Tampa Bay's second championship, but Colton can say he did something every kid dreams of doing on the national stage – and in front of fans, something that seemed like a distant memory a year ago.
Be proud, Ross.