Gourde, Erne Make Impact in Bolts' Push for Playoffs

As the Tampa Bay Lightning have gone through the 2016-17 regular season, their seemingly consistent string of injuries to key players has created the need for call-ups from the Syracuse Crunch at levels unseen in seasons past.

The term "TampaCuse" has been used to describe the shuttle of players between the clubs throughout the season more than normal this year.

During Saturday's 3-2 victory over the Florida Panthers, the Lightning dressed five players who began the year with the Crunch in the American Hockey League – defenseman Jake Dotchin and forwards Adam Erne, Yanni Gourde, Matthew Peca, and Luke Witkowski.

While each of these players has contributed in an important way for the Lightning this season, Erne and Gourde are two prospects who have been particularly impressive of late.

On Saturday, Gourde scored his first NHL goal in the second period to erase what was a two-goal deficit after 20 minutes of play. It wasn't just any goal, however, as it came shorthanded after he stole the puck from Panthers forward Vincent Trocheck near the Lightning blue line and sped down the ice. He managed to fend off Trocheck, who stayed with him stride for stride, keeping his body between Trocheck and the puck before firing a shot past Panthers goaltender James Reimer.

Gourde called the moment surreal and something he'd dreamed about, although he didn't know how he'd imagined his first goal actually playing out when the time came.

"To be honest, I was just worried about Trocheck and trying to take the puck away from me, so that was it," Gourde said after the game on Saturday. "When I had the inside position (on him) I just tried to shoot it."

Erne, who scored his first NHL goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins on March 3, was excited to see Gourde pot his first one in a unique way and at such a meaningful moment for the team.

"Especially shorthanded, it was a hard-working goal for sure," Erne said. "I'm not going to forget mine and I'm sure he's not going to forget his, so I was really happy for him."

Gourde, a 25-year-old winger who centered a line with Jonathan Drouin and Alex Killorn on Saturday, has seen action in five games this season, including two during his first call-up in late December. With his goal on Saturday, he now has a two-game point streak and has become a regular on the team's penalty-killing unit — a role he's been effective in with the Crunch this season.

"We try to stand up at the blue line and create turnovers so they don't get in (our zone) easily," Gourde said of the Lightning's penalty killing strategy. "That's what we do in Syracuse, also."

While Gourde has earned his spot in the lineup because of his play, he's appreciative of the guidance he's received from his Lightning teammates and how Drouin and Killorn have helped him during his time with the team this season.

"Every guy is very nice to me, but Jo Drouin, Alex Killorn were unbelievable with me tonight," Gourde said after Saturday's game. "I played with them (during my last call-up). They help me on the ice, they help me off the ice when I came back, so it's very nice of them."

Erne and Gourde were each recalled on Feb. 27, but Gourde was returned to Syracuse before he played a game with the Lightning. He was recalled again on March 6 and has drawn into the lineup in four straight games as the Lightning make a push for the team's fourth-straight playoff berth. It makes for a postseason-like atmosphere each game, but something Gourde embraces.

"It's very nice; I mean, it's kind of my game," Gourde said of being with the Lightning at this part of the season. "I really like to play intense with a high compete level so it's kind of fun to play that game and being up here right now."

Erne, a 21-year-old winger, impressed the Lightning coaching staff in four games during his first call-up in January, but fractured his foot on Jan. 8, keeping him out of game action for a month as he recovered. When he returned to the Crunch, he kept his game simple with an eye toward earning his way back into the lineup with the Lightning if given the opportunity.

"Just play my game — being big, strong, making sure that I stayed in shape while I was out for a month there," Erne said. "Once you get a taste (of playing in the NHL), you don't want to go back down to Syracuse, so just pushing to get back up."

Since his return to the Lightning, Erne has skated in seven games, registered his first career goal and is averaging over 13 minutes of ice time per contest. At 6'1", 214-pounds, he's utilizing his big frame to play a gritty, physical style — one that helps create room on the ice and scoring opportunities for his teammates. He's also seeing time on the Lightning's power play unit as a big body in front of the net.

During the team's 1-0 shootout loss to the New York Rangers on March 6, Erne had one of his most complete games of his short NHL career up to this point. In 11:32 of ice time, he registered two hits, six shots on goal, and two penalty minutes while playing the role the Lightning need from him after Brian Boyle was moved on Feb. 27 before the NHL's trade deadline.

"Just being physical, being around the net," Erne said of what's working for him in his role with the Lightning. "We aren't the biggest team, so whenever I can play big, that's what I want to do."

As of early Monday, the Lightning were just three points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs for the final wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs and the team is collectively playing some of their best hockey of the year. They've gone 10-2-3 in their past 15 games entering Monday's contest against the New York Rangers with just 15 games left in the regular season.

There's a combination of things contributing to the team's success over the past 15 games. They are playing a better game defensively across the board, receiving scoring from different contributors of late, and Andrei Vasilevskiy has taken the starting role and run with it, posting a 5-0-1 record in six starts to go along with 1.46 goals-against average and .956 save percentage. But with the trades of Boyle and Valtteri Filppula and injuries to Tyler Johnson, Vladislav Namestnikov, and Cedric Paquette, it's the performance from "TampaCuse" prospects that's also helping to round things out.

"We are playing unselfish hockey ... I think we're playing defense first and that's turning into a lot of offensive chances for us," Erne said of what's been behind the team's turnaround. "We're sticking to our system, stressing it, and it's been going well."

The Lightning will look to earn points in back-to-back games against the New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators on Monday and Tuesday before returning home to face the Maple Leafs and Washington Capitals later this week — a span of four important games against conference opponents in just six days.

The pipeline from Syracuse to Tampa has been used this season more than ever before, but Erne and Gourde are among those players making the most of their opportunity with the Lightning right now and the players are team are benefitting from it.