“Carter Verhaeghe at his stall, everyone,” Lightning PR said as the majority of the attending media were still talking with Brayden Point and Steven Stamkos. The mass of bodies quickly shifted toward the 24-year-old rookie who hasn’t had the easiest time transitioning to the NHL this season. Verhaeghe didn’t budge though, he smiled throughout the questioning, didn’t stutter, and looked far more at ease than earlier in the season.
For a player who dominated the AHL last year (34 goals, 48 assists, 82 points), many were hoping Verhaeghe would fit into the Lightning’s top nine after the departure of J.T. Miller. However, it’s hasn’t been as seamless as they expected. Part of the issue stems from being moved from center to wing throughout the early parts of the season due to injuries to Cedric Paquette and Brayden Point, as well as a few nights where he’s been healthy scratched. Another part of it is Verhaeghe figuring out how he fits on a team that lit the league on fire last season and boasts forward depth that only a handful of teams can match.
“It’s a different league,” Verhaeghe said. “The ‘D’ have way better gaps. I just can’t get the puck, look up and have a ton of space. I usually don’t. So I have to pick my time and be more aware, and win puck battles. When you win puck battles, you have an opportunity to make plays. That’s huge going forward.”
Earlier in the season there would be games that Verhaeghe wouldn’t do much of anything—he’d effectively disappear on any given night. His speed and forechecking would be noticeable, but many times it looked like the NHL level was a bit too fast for him. He persevered, though; through the ups and downs, the healthy scratches, the low ice-times, and the missed scoring opportunities.
It wasn’t until Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois gave Verhaeghe the fateful message in mid-November that he could find an apartment that things started to turn. It wasn’t automatic, but slowly Verhaeghe started to make more of an impact. He scored his first NHL goal, and first multi-point game, in his 17th game (Tampa Bay’s 27th game) against the San Jose Sharks—hilariously another game where the Lightning routed the opposition. Before that game Verhaeghe hadn’t scored a point since October 5th when the Lightning fell to the Florida Panthers 4-3.
Verhaeghe went through small slump after his three point outburst against San Jose, however, there was a noticeable change in him. There was a level of confidence in his game that we hadn’t seen earlier in the season. Verhaeghe began tilting the ice more effectively, he began winning more puck battles, he started shooting more, and it showed over his last three games.
With a goal against Ottawa and an assist against Carolina Verhaeghe entered last night’s match-up against the red-hot Vancouver Canucks on his first ever NHL points streak. With former Lightning forward J.T. Miller in an opposing jersey, it felt fitting that Verhaeghe’s best game came last night.
There is a hole in Tampa Bay’s top nine that needs to be filled. One that BriseBois could fill through trade, but is more inclined to allow one of Tampa Bay’s young forwards fill that spot. Similar to how Mikhail Sergachev has filled a top four spot on the defensive side. It was hoped that sophomore forward Mathieu Joseph would fill that spot after a strong rookie season, but he’s struggled with consistency and confidence this year.
If Verhaeghe can keep up his style of play then it’s possible the rookie could fill that spot. Obviously he won’t be scoring hat-tricks left and right, but with his improved play and the rise of fellow rookie Mitchell Stephens Tampa Bay could have their answer right there in front of them.
As for his teammates, they were ecstatic for him, but not overly surprised.
“It’s something that takes time,” said Point, who had four points last night, “It’s a whole different thing playing against guys you watch on TV and grow up idolizing. It can be hairy at the start, but finding that confidence and playing the way he is, it’s great to see.”
Lighting captain Steven Stamkos also chimed in on Verhaeghe’s big night, “You try to ride it as long as you can. It’s such a great feeling. You feel like every time you touch the puck, something good is going to happen. For him, he had an up-and-down season coming in, in and out of the lineup, thrown on every which line. He just comes in, a quiet kid, just does his work, but you can tell. There’s a reason he led the AHL in scoring last year. He has the skill set. Sometimes, it’s just confidence, and he’s playing with it right now.”
One of the funnier things I noticed in last night’s game was during the late power play in the third period where coach Jon Cooper sent out a modified top power play that saw Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, Stamkos, Anthony Cirelli, and Verhaeghe on the ice. To me, that was a blatant sign that Cooper wanted to keep feeding the hot hand.
When asked about the last power play, Cooper didn’t budge with a smile, but replied, “The whole thing was if we’re going to get any chance at all, let’s just keep possession, but if somebody’s going to shoot it, let’s make sure it’s number 23. It’s big enough to score a goal in the National Hockey League, but to get three in a night, that’s one you’re going to remember.”
Verhaeghe could’ve had four goals on the night when he got another in-close chance after being sprung on a partial break, but from Verhaeghe’s own words he’s glad that one didn’t go in, “I didn’t want anymore.”
Everyone in the locker room laughed at that one.
Everyone also got a laugh when Pat Maroon walked through the locker room and boomed, “Not like the ‘Cuse, is it?”, a statement that was meant to make Stephens and Verhaeghe feel a bit more at home with the large section of media that surrounded them last night.
However, there’s one quote from last night that sums up everything for Verhaeghe, and it’s from Cooper.
“That’s got to be a thrill of a lifetime.”
It sure was, and hopefully he can build off of it moving forward.
- Point’s four points last night was the third time he’s gotten 4+ points and second time this season. In all three games, he scored only one goal, his career high is a 1-4-5. It’s also his fourth career game with 3+ assists.
- This was Stamkos’ 75th 3+ point game in his career. The Lightning are 67-7-1 when Stamkos records 3+ points.
- This was Erik Cernak’s fourth career multi-point game and the third time he has recorded a goal and an assist in doing so.
- Kevin Shattenkirk was a +4 without recording a point. He’s had four games in his career being a +4, but got a single point in two of them and three points in the third. This was the first time he did it without recording a point.
- Braydon Coburn got his first assist of the season in his 21st game. This is the longest it’s taken him in a season to get his first assist. His previous high was 16th game, which he did in 2013-14 and in his rookie season of 2006-07.
- Every Lightning player except Victor Hedman and Jan Rutta record at least a +1. Those two were a -1 and were on ice for both goals against.
- Sergachev registered his 13th 20+ minute TOI game of the season and are 8-5-0 (.615 Pts%) in those games. He only had 17 such games coming into the season and the Lightning were 9-7-1 (.559 Pts%) in those games.
- No update on Ryan McDonagh’s injury status. Hopefully it isn’t a long term issue for the veteran defenseman.
- The metrics will say Andrei Vasilevskiy was only a .913 goalie last night, but neither of Vancouver’s goals could be pinned on him. Also, don’t look now, but over his last five games Vasilevskiy has a .923 save percentage.