Lightning’s Nick Paul lives for the big moments – as his family has long known

TAMPA, Fla. — When Lightning winger Nick Paul hobbled into the tunnel late in the first period of Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals, needing help getting to the locker room, there was many at Amalie Arena who wondered if he would come back.

This included his fiancée, Janessa.

Not good, she thought.

The seats for Janessa and Paul’s mother, Melinda, were behind the bench at the Lightning, but they had gone to the family room downstairs during the first intermission. Janessa, wearing Paul’s No. 20 and holding a thunder paddle, and Melinda were a little late getting back in for the second period, so they didn’t hear the cheers until Tampa Bay scored 1 minute and 26 seconds into it.

It was Paul.

“Everyone was like, ‘How is he? Is he coming back?'” Janessa said Athleticism. “I was going back to my seat and they scored and everyone was like, ‘It’s Nick!’ I’m like, ‘Really? He’s outside? That was exciting.’

Paul, who got tangled and picked his toes near the boards in the first half, said it was worse off the start than it actually was – “Just hitting the funny bone I guess.” Paul went to the locker room to have his leg assessed and got cleared, then tested it by skating before the start of the period.

“I would definitely go back,” he said.

That Paul scored what turned out to be the game-winner in a 6-2 win over the Avalanche on Monday night — which cut Tampa Bay’s series deficit to 2-1 — came as no surprise. any of his new teammates. After all, Paul has proven to be a clutch since arriving shortly before Ottawa’s trade deadline, including scoring both goals in a Game 7 win over the Leafs in the first round, putting him up for still in the tradition of the Lightning. Although this is his first playoff run as a pro, those who coach Paul say he was built for this time of year, both in physical size and balance.

“He’s good under pressure,” Janessa said.

And hard.

“Just like his mother, right? Melinda joked. “It’s just that Nick does what Nick does.”

Life for Paul and his family is much different from what they expected just a few months ago.

On Paul’s 27th birthday, March 20, the day before the NHL’s trade deadline, they were together in Ottawa. The plan was to have a birthday dinner that night at the Keg. Paul’s camp had been talking with the Senators about a possible contract extension, something he and Janessa were excited about. Paul had found a trainer who believed in him in DJ Smith, who felt the winger had found his footing after 11 outings from the AHL.

Janessa, who has a master’s degree in child psychology, works at a children’s hospital in the city, where the two have tons of friends. The couple had met at a Boots & Hearts music festival, with 6ft Janessa seeing Paul pull up a cooler and offer to help and later say, ‘I wanted to have a big one before all the ( small) women have the big ones. »

Paul received an offer from Ottawa — supposed to last four years with a $2.5 million AAV — but negotiations have stalled. His agent told him on his birthday to expect to be traded, with several teams in the mix, including the Rangers and Bruins. It wasn’t until Paul, his parents and Janessa jumped into his white Audi Q5 SUV and headed to the restaurant that he got the news: he was going to Tampa.

Soon, he was inundated with texts and calls from his new teammates. Lightning’s wives and girlfriends quickly reached out to Janessa, making her feel at home. They returned to Paul’s for cake (ice cream, cookies and cream), the family toasting champagne left over from Christmas and New Years. It was emotional for everyone, given his journey, Melinda saying to his son: “They’ve won two Stanley Cups and they want you.”

“I knew no matter what, it would work out,” Janessa said.

But this well? Paul, a major difference-maker, playing for a potential championship team, increasing his stock every minute for this summer’s draw as an unrestricted free agent?

“We are all grateful. It seems very surreal at times,” Melinda said. “It’s an opportunity that doesn’t come to everyone, is it? We are happy that he was able to take this opportunity and do his best. Not everyone is so lucky. »

The day after Paul was traded, he was traveling to Raleigh, North Carolina to meet the Lightning for his debut.

He called Smith, and that conversation is now considered the Senators coach’s favorite memory.

“He thanked me,” Smith recalled recently. “He didn’t have tears in his eyes, but I had never seen him like this before. He was really grateful that I took the time to give him an opportunity. And really, that’s coaching. At the end of the day, if a player leaves you and you made them a little better, it feels good to have helped someone in some way, in their case, to realize their dream.

Smith added: “It’s a lot more you than you think.”

Smith had known Paul since coaching against him as a junior a decade ago, when Paul was a linemate with Barclay Goodrow in Brampton. He had seen Paul play for Team Canada at the world junior championships, surprising him the most by being part of the team.

“I saw him at his best, and it was just a matter of himself,” Smith said. “I don’t think he believed that after being cut and kicked and waived and the league passed him on, he per se belonged in the NHL. The more opportunities we gave him, the better he got. And he proved he was not just an NHL player, but a good player.

When Paul was traded to Tampa Bay, Smith predicted it would be a perfect fit.

“He can play any position,” Smith said. “He can play in his own, he can add to an attack. The more comfortable Nick feels with the team and the coaching staff, the more you can see that he has more skills than people give him credit for. He’s a competitor. When you talk about winning championships, Nick has that extra gear and physique that I think will help.

“He can do anything you need him to do, and he won’t let you down.”

Lightning coach Jon Cooper said he would be lying if he said he thought Paul would play the kind of minutes he does or that he would be the first player to cross the bar shorthanded.

Or that he would be a Game 7 hero.

“But he earned it,” Cooper said.

Paul always said he believed he was made for the playoffs, even though he didn’t have the experience to show it. He said his time with Team Canada at the World Championships last summer – when Paul scored the gold medal goal – was a big moment for him.

“I haven’t played playoff hockey in a long time – meaningful hockey,” Paul said. “So having those world championships has really helped me get to those games where it means something – do or die, overtime, whatever is at stake, going for the gold medal. These (are) situations I love, and I rise to the occasion. I don’t know what it is, it happens. It’s nice to have that feeling again, to have that experience.

Paul isn’t the only Lightning player to come down the tunnel in the gym after an injury and return to play this playoff. It’s part of the sacrifice and courage that makes this team special, as back-to-back defending champions. Paul appears to be fit like a glove, earning the admiration of his teammates, who feared he might be injured on Monday night.

“Pauly is an important part of our team, so you’re holding your breath a bit,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “Guys are obviously stoned, especially at this time of year. But like a real hockey player, he sucks in and out and scores the eventual winner of the game. You can see how valuable he is to our team, all the little things he does, he’s already scored big goals. He lived great moments. »

“Was he hurt? said Victor Hedman with a smile. “He didn’t miss a beat. Incredible player. He shows every playoff what he’s made of, that at this time of year he seems to thrive.

“It was uplifting,” Cooper said.

These big moments will likely net Paul a big payday in free agency, as we’ve already covered. But Paul hopes it’s in Tampa, where he’s settled into a three-bedroom Airbnb in South Tampa. There’s a chance he could establish more permanent roots, although it will be difficult for the Lightning to afford it, as well as Ondrej Palat, also a UFA pending.

“I really like it here,” Paul said. “I love the staff, I love the guys, I love everything about it. Right now the focus is on winning the playoffs, but after the season it’s definitely somewhere I’d like to be.

Paul and Janessa have their routines, including walking their dogs Nash (Shepherd Husky) and Hazel (Lab Husky) around the neighborhood. They have found a favorite Greek restaurant that they frequent. “It kept working, so we kept eating there,” Janessa said. “It feels like luck now.”

Paul is three wins away from his first Stanley Cup championship, and his family is on board, even his dad, Ellwood, who stayed home Monday night to dog-sit.

“We value our time for sure,” Janessa said.

“How not to take advantage of it? Melinda said.

“It’s fun – stressful, but it’s fine,” Janessa said.

Said Melinda: “It’s all upside down for us.”

(Photo by Nick Paul of Lightning and Jack Johnson of Avalanche: Mark J. Rebilas/USA Today)

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