TAMPA — Lightning rookie center Cedric Paquette didn’t sleep very well Tuesday night. No surprise there. It’s hard to sleep when you know your wildest dreams are about to come true.
A fan of the Montreal Canadiens when he was growing up in Gaspe, Quebec, Paquette first began to lose his love for Les Habitants when they passed on him five times during the 2012 NHL draft.
Fast forward to Wednesday, and the opportunity to prove the Canadiens made a big mistake by not selecting him was just about all Paquette could think about as he prepared to make his Stanley Cup playoff debut.
“That was my team,’’ Paquette said of the Canadiens before the start of their first-round playoff matchup with the Lightning at the Forum. “Now I’d like to make them pay.’’
Paquette got his chance in part because the Lightning grabbed him in the fourth round (101st overall) of the 2012 draft, but also because he was a standout with their American Hockey League affiliate this season.
A gritty center with a penchant for winning faceoffs, Paquette scored 20 goals and assisted on 24 others while recording 153 penalty minutes during his first full season with the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch.
Those numbers earned Paquette his first call to the NHL last week, and his work in his own end, where he won several key faceoffs late in the Lightning’s regular-season finale at Washington, earned him a spot in Wednesday’s lineup.
“He showed us his mettle,’’ Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
Paquette wasn’t expecting to show the Lightning much of anything. Not this year, at least. He hoped for a chance to show them something next season, perhaps, but the Lightning had different plans.
“There were many times when we wanted to call him up, but with the style of our organization and the way we do things, we thought let’s give him a full stretch (in Syracuse) and let him play all the minutes possible there,’’ Cooper said.
“But we thought all along that he was someone that we could possibly use at the end of the year, and it’s really played out that way for him. So, he’s going to help us. He helped us those last two (regular-season) games.’’
In addition to winning those key faceoffs against the Capitals, Paquette earned his first career point, an assist, during a victory over Columbus on April 11, the day he was recalled.
“Everything has happened so fast,’’ Paquette said. “Just last week I was in Syracuse, practicing with the guys. And today I’m here playing in the playoffs against Montreal. It’s amazing.’’
A little overwhelming, too. The sleep Paquette lost Tuesday was just one of the signs. He also admitted Wednesday to being quite nervous. After all, the opener against the Canadiens was easily the biggest game of his young career.
“I was in the playoffs last year in the AHL (three games with Syracuse), but this is bigger,’’ Paquette said. “So, I’m a bit nervous, yeah. I’m really trying not to think about it too much and just trying to have fun.’’