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DENVER — Nick Paul’s first-period goal Wednesday in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final against the Avalanche punctuated what has been a smooth transition to the Lightning. He attributes his quick adaptation to the ingredient that has powered many elements of the Lightning’s continued success: a team approach.
“Coming to a new team can be pretty nerve-racking,” said Paul, traded from the Senators on March 20 having never seen playoff action in his six previous NHL seasons. “Where are you going to fit in?
“But the guys here have been absolutely amazing,” he said after Friday’s skate at Ball Arena. “As soon as I got traded, I got about eight texts welcoming me to the team. I get there and they take me out for dinner and made me feel right at home.”
The 6-foot-3, 224-pound forward was brought in for his toughness and reputation as a good defensive player. A bonus has been his offense, including a goal in his Lightning debut March 22. He displayed that skill again when he scored the Lightning’s first goal of the Cup final. The goal at 12:26 of the first period briefly swung momentum in Tampa Bay’s favor after Colorado had busted out to a 2-0 lead.
In six-plus seasons with Ottawa, Paul tallied just 29 goals in 227 games. During his quarter-season with Tampa Bay, he scored five goals in 21 regular-season games, and that uptick in finding the back of the net has continued in the playoffs.
At the time of the trade, Lightning coach Jon Cooper talked about how Paul has a “playoff build” to him: “I know he’s not played in the playoffs before, but he’s a guy that looks like he’s built for it.”
In 18 playoff games, Paul has four goals, all at even strength. Only Ondrej Palat (nine) and Steven Stamkos (eight) have more Lightning playoff goals in 5-on-5 situations.
Just as Paul’s teammates helped the 27-year-old transition to new surroundings, so did coaches.
“They kind of let me know where they see me,” he said, “what kind of role I’ll be playing to help the team have the most success.”
Paul, a Toronto-area native, was a fourth-round draft pick of the Stars in 2013 but never saw NHL action with them. In 2014, he was part of a deal that sent Senators stalwart Jason Spezza to Dallas. Paul spent several seasons shuttling between Ottawa and the minor leagues before settling in with the Senators.
By the time he arrived in Tampa Bay, his coaches were blessed with options. During his pro career, Paul has fit in where needed — left wing, right wing, center — whatever it has taken for him “to get to the next level.” That versatility allowed him to play a key fill-in role for the last month when star center Brayden Point was out with an injury suffered in Game 7 of the first round of the playoffs against Toronto. On Wednesday night, Paul played on Point’s line.
After the 4-3 overtime loss in Game 1, Lightning players and coaches preached the need to be less reactive to the Avalanche’s style of play and to dictate things themselves. Part of the key to doing that will be improving their forechecking and not allowing Colorado to begin quick attacks in Game 2 tonight. Forechecking is one of Paul’s specialties.
“(The Avalanche have) speed,” Paul said. “You want to get touches on them, whether you’re finishing hits, whether it’s a little bump. The biggest thing is just laying a body.”
Paul can be a free agent at season’s end. On his way to a career-high point total before the trade, he finished the 2021-22 regular season with a career-best 32 points on 16 goals and 16 assists.
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