TAMPA, Fla. — His teammates heard he has a reputation as a money player and Antoine Vermette has done nothing to disprove it this postseason.
The veteran center netted his third game-winner of the postseason on Saturday night and the Blackhawks pulled ahead in the Stanley Cup Final, edging the Tampa Bay Lightning, 2-1, in Game 5 at Amalie Arena. Vermette has four goals this postseason for the Blackhawks, who lead the series 3-2 and, on Monday night, could clinch their first Stanley Cup title at home since 1938.
“(Phoenix coach Dave Tippett) said in big games, he comes up big and it’s definitely what he’s been doing for us here,” defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said. “He’s a guy that’s great in faceoffs and extremely nice off the ice, too. He’s a great addition to the locker room.
“A lot of veteran presence.”
This is exactly what the Blackhawks had in mind — well, maybe not this — when they traded defenseman Klas Dahlbeck and a 2015 first-round draft pick to the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for Vermette on Feb. 28.
With the score tied at 1 in the third, Kris Versteeg broke away from the pack. His shot kicked off the skate of Tampa Bay goalie Ben Bishop, but Vermette was there to clean it up and put the Blackhawks ahead for good.
Vermette also had the game-winner in Game 1 over the Lightning and his overtime goal lifted the Blackhawks over the Anaheim Ducks in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals.
“It’s nice to see Vermy get those chances,” said center Jonathan Toews. “He’s scored two really big goals for us in this building and he’s been a huge part of our team and our success.”
Well, the transition hasn’t always been smooth for Vermette.
With Patrick Kane out indefinitely with a clavicle injury, the Blackhawks added the pending unrestricted free agent for depth prior to the trade deadline. But playing about five fewer minutes per game for the Blackhawks after the trade than he did for the Coyotes, Vermette struggled.
“Off the get go was very tough for me,” Vermette said.
Vermette had three assists for the Blackhawks but didn’t score a goal in 19 regular-season games. Even in the postseason, Vermette was a healthy scratch in Games 1 and 2 of the first round and Game 3 of the Western Conference Final.
But the more experience he gains with his new teammates, the more Vermette has excelled.
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Or couldn’t you tell?
“I think in the beginning he tried to understand our system,” right wing Marian Hossa said. “After some time he got the role and grew in that role unbelievably and he’s scoring huge goals for us. He’s a great centerman and he’s scoring right now big goals, so I’m feeling great for him.”
Vermette feels pretty good, too.
This is the second time he’s been to the Stanley Cup Final after he played 20 postseason games for the 2006-07 Ottawa Senators, who lost in five games to the Ducks. Vermette said he didn’t put any more pressure on himself because he was the team’s high-profile acquisition.
It just took a little time to get accustomed to his new role.
“This is a good group, obviously a special team," Vermette said. "You have to come here and try to help the team. This is a lot of fun right now, but there’s a lot of work still ahead.”