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Nick Paul joined Lightning lore in Game 7 and knocked out the hometown Leafs

With the trade deadline approaching in late March, Stan Butler was a busy man.

The longtime junior coach, who spent most of his career with Brampton or North Bay in the Ontario Hockey League, got calls from a number of teams that were asking about the same guy:

Nick Paul.

Butler had coached Paul for three years, and NHL teams remembered he had played with Barclay Goodrow, who ended up being a massive deadline addition for the Lightning in 2020. They felt Paul could be a difference-maker, too. So the clubs asked Butler what he was like to coach. (“Easy, like Barclay. If you have a team full of those guys, you wouldn’t have any gray hair.”) Then they asked the money question:

How is he in big games?

“He’s built for the playoffs,” Butler said. “He loves the pressure.”

Paul’s hometown Maple Leafs found that out the hard way. Veteran Corey Perry said if you shine in a Game 7, they’ll remember your name forever, and nobody in Tampa Bay will forget Paul, whose two goals and brilliant overall performance lifted the Lightning to a 2-1 victory over the Leafs at a stunningly-silent Scotiabank Arena on Saturday. Tampa Bay will face the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Panthers in the second round. This is just Paul’s first taste of the NHL playoffs, but Tampa Bay’s deadline addition seamlessly fit in with the gutsy, determined effort delivered by the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions, who gave up just one goal in the final five periods of the series.

No forward played more minutes in the biggest game of the season than Paul (22:03). He was the first over the boards for the penalty kill and, when Tampa Bay needed to close out the game, Paul was on the ice for 2:56 of the final 3:50.

“Everything is on the line. It’s Game 7,” Paul said. “I’m not going to change the way I’ve been playing. I’ve been playing my heart out, having chances, and tonight they just happen to be going in.”

The Lightning got humbled, pushed to the brink by the Leafs over seven games, but they just wouldn’t die, overcoming a 3-2 series deficit. It sometimes took more sandpaper than stars, more blocked shots than big plays. Andrei Vasilevskiy saved his best game for last, with his 30-save effort reminiscent of many during his Conn Smythe-worthy postseason a summer ago. But with star center Brayden Point leaving the game in the first period with an injury, it was Paul and the rest of the group who rallied behind him and blocked 25 shots.

“Tampa Bay just knows how to win,” Wayne Gretzky said on TNT.

Coach Jon Cooper said before the game that his group was on the “cusp of greatness,” and when you’re in the position, “why the hell wouldn’t you charge through that door?” This took everything Tampa Bay had, with Steven Stamkos calling it one of the toughest series they ever played in, and they wouldn’t be still talking about a three-peat if it wasn’t for Paul.

“Something that doesn’t get mentioned is some players like (Paul) weren’t here, and that’s motivation. ‘Let’s get these guys a chance at the Cup,’” Stamkos said. “Let’s get (Corey Perry) another one. Let’s get (Pierre-Edouard Bellemare) one. Let’s get Brian Elliott one. The list goes on.

“That’s part of the motivation factor. Once you put that Bolts uniform on, it’s really a new year. It’s going to be as hard as ever.”


Paul grew up in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga wanting to wear a Leafs uniform.

He was youth teammates with Carolina forward Max Domi, the son of former Leaf Tie Domi, so Paul got an up-close look at the NHL. Paul met some of the players and got a taste of the dream he had so many times playing in the driveway or neighborhood rink with his brother Jesse.

But Paul, like a few other Lightning postseason heroes, didn’t appear destined for pro hockey. When Paul, who was 5-foot-6 and awkward in midget, was not drafted in bantam, it stung. Three hundred and two kids got their names called, but not him. His parents told him he had 48 hours to be upset, then had to do something about it.

Paul didn’t need to sleep on it to know how he felt.

“I want it,” he told them. “I want it 100 percent.”

He just needed someone to want him.

That big break came approximately 20 miles from where Paul had the game of his life Saturday night. It was Chesswood Arena, a rink in North York with four ice sheets. Ten years ago, Butler was at Chesswood scouting another minor midget game, which was delayed. So he went over to the sheet where Paul was playing. Butler asked other scouts if they knew him — nope — but figured he’d give him a look.

“He was a good player on a bad team,” Butler said. “But he had potential.”

What Butler found in Paul was a strong 200-foot player. He was versatile and tough. Paul formed a dynamic line with Gordon, now with the Rangers, with the two making life hell for anyone they faced. Butler could count on Paul to line-match against Connor McDavid. In Paul’s last playoff appearance before this series, in the 2015 OHL playoffs, Paul’s North Bay team lost in the conference finals to eventual champion Oshawa, led by Paul’s current teammate Anthony Cirelli.

Oshawa’s coach? The same one Paul had the last three years in Ottawa.

“I trusted him,” D.J. Smith said. “He’s responsible, he’s got hands in tight and he’s streaky. He knows on shifts when he’s not scoring, he can do the little things that make an impact. He’s the kind of guy you win with.”


The Lightning likely wouldn’t have won the last two Cup championships had it not been for deadline acquisitions like Goodrow and Blake Coleman.

And this group, if they’re able to pull off a historic three-peat, will probably look back at deals for Paul and Brandon Hagel as signature moments. You don’t get that far without depth, and Tampa Bay badly needed it Saturday night.

It started in the first period, when Point raced into the left side of the Leafs’ zone on a play he’s made a million times. But as Point pulled up, his right leg got caught awkwardly on the boards and he went down hard in visible pain. The sight of Point — the Lightning’s No. 1 center and engine up front — hobbling off the ice could have been a devastating blow for Tampa Bay, especially considering the circumstances.

But as Point headed to the dressing room, Cal Foote said the team rallied behind him, saying “Play for Pointer.” Point, the team’s leading goal-scorer the last two postseasons, tried to return for the start of the second but struggled to make it through a shift. He put his head on the bench, visibly emotional, with teammates like Cirelli trying to console him. The fact Point stayed, in full gear, on the bench the rest of the game as a “cheerleader” went a long way in inspiring the team. “It says everything about our team,” Victor Hedman said.

And Point.

“There’s no worse feeling for a player than not being out there with the guys in games like this,” said Stamkos, who also stayed on the bench after getting hurt in the 2020 Cup Final. “Especially for Pointer, who is just a warrior and does so many little things, just to see him in pain like that is (tough). Give our group credit. We could have been like, ‘Oh Pointer is out, it’s going to be one of those nights.’ We didn’t. We fell back on the standard set for this group, that’s (to) do whatever it takes to win. It doesn’t matter who or how, it’s just win.”

The surprising “who” soon became Paul.

Paul scored the game’s first goal in the final two minutes of the first period, pouncing on a rebound and flipping it in off the rush. The Lightning entered Game 7 prepared to win 2-1 or 1-0, and the team that scored first in this series had won five of the first six games. But Cooper said the biggest moment was when Paul scored for the second time, late in the second and just three minutes after Morgan Rielly had tied it up.

Unlike the previous two games, in which the Lightning blew a two-goal lead, Paul’s goal — he knocked the puck to his stick from his skate in the slot and finished — allowed Tampa Bay to grab the game back for good. The goal wasn’t quite as flashy as Paul’s between-the-legs, no-look assist and between-the-legs shot down the stretch, but it certainly showed some swagger.

Paul feels like he plays better when the pressure is on, and he’s got a gold medal in world juniors and the gold-medal winning goal for Canada at the world championships to prove it. Now he has his first signature Stanley Cup playoff moment. And Tampa Bay hopes there are many more, with both Paul, a pending UFA, and the team having mutual interest in him staying beyond this year.

“He’s a gamer. It’s probably the best way to describe him,” said Ross Colton, Paul’s linemate. “He lives for these big moments. We acquired him for a reason and you could see that today.”

Paul was on the way to a birthday dinner with his parents and fiance, Janessa, on Sunday, March 20 when he found out he was getting traded from Ottawa to the Lightning. He had tried to work out an extension with the Senators, the team that gave him his first shot. But after spending most of the dinner at The Keg on the phone sorting out his major life move, Paul had a celebratory champagne toast and cake with his folks back at his house.

“They’re the two-time Cup champions,” his mother, Melinda, said. “And they want you.”

On Saturday, everyone saw why.

(Photo of Nick Paul: Nick Turchiaro / USA Today)

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