Peca Adjusts Quickly with Lightning
Tampa Bay Lightning forward Matthew Peca is just eight games into his NHL career since being recalled from the Syracuse Crunch on Dec. 27, but he’s adjusting quickly to playing at the game’s highest level.
Peca has a goal and an assist and is averaging 12 minutes of ice time per game as the Lightning seek to close a six-point gap for the final wild card position in the Eastern Conference currently held by the Philadelphia Flyers.
“I feel good,” Peca said after the Lightning’s 4-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday. “I am getting more and more comfortable every game.”
Peca is a natural center but saw some time at the wing position against the Sabres playing alongside Alex Killorn and Tyler Johnson as head coach Jon Cooper continues to adjust line combinations because of injuries to Lightning forwards.
“I played a little bit of wing today, which is kind of a change-up for me playing center … I am getting thrown into different situations, different opportunities, and I’m just trying to take it in stride,” Peca said, reflecting on the unique situation and how it’s beneficial to him early in his career.
Because of injuries to Lightning forwards Cedric Paquette, Brayden Point, Brian Boyle, among others, Peca has played with a handful of different players, including Crunch teammate Adam Erne, who played well in four games with the Lightning before fracturing his foot against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday.
Despite often playing with different linemates, Peca is developing his game at the NHL level and chemistry with his new teammates.
“They’re all skilled players and everyone basically knows what our system is and we all play together as it is,” Peca said. “It does impact you a little bit playing with different players, but honestly I kind of enjoy it. It’s something new every night … it’s good to get to know the guys.”
The 23-year-old forward has had success as he’s moved up the college ranks and transitioned to the professional game with the Crunch, in part because of his speed — something that’s also helping his leap from the fast-paced AHL game to the blazing speed of today’s NHL.
“I think it’s helped because it’s obviously a huge part of this game,” Peca said, as he compared the NHL to what he’s used to in the AHL. “It’s a little more open … there’s a little more speed to this game, so for me to be able to at least try and keep up with it, it’s definitely helped.”
While the third-year pro has found the scoresheet just twice in the early part of his NHL career, he's showed a mature defensive game and is playing a high-energy style. His skating ability and creativity with the puck continues to create scoring opportunities for him and his teammates. It’s the sort of 2-way play that is keeping him on the Lightning roster as other Crunch forwards make a strong case to be recalled by the club.
In the second period of Thursday’s game, he capitalized on a Sabres turnover near the boards and snapped off a quick shot towards the top right corner of the net before it was gloved by Sabres goaltender Anders Nilsson. While the play didn’t result in a goal, it showed good awareness by Peca, as he recognized the situation and the need to put the puck on net quickly for the best scoring chance.
“It was kind of a broken play — a turnover,” Peca said. “I knew I wanted to get it off quick because I didn’t figure he’d (Nilsson) have that much time to get set.
“He gave me that (right) side and then took it away which is a really good play for a goalie … he read me pretty well and that’s just the way it goes sometimes.”
The Lightning entered the game leading the Sabres by just one point in the Eastern Conference wild card race, but extended it to three with the win. The Lightning moved the puck well and maintained composure despite falling behind 1-0 early in the first period on the Sabres’ first shot of the game.
“I think today we kind of just stuck to our game,” Peca said. “We let in one early and there was no doubt in our room, whereas before, I think there might have been a little bit because teams have been scoring on us early.
“There was a little bit more belief in our game today … we kind of just went back to basics and just did what makes us successful.”
Peca and the Lightning will look to build upon their momentum as they play the back end of back-to-back games against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Friday before hitting the road to play six games over the course of a 13-day trip.
Editor's Note: Peca was reassigned to AHL Syracuse Saturday prior to the Lightning's West Coast trip.