How Corey Perry Is Making His Presence Felt With the Lightning

Nikita Kucherov has put the NHL on notice: He’s back.

Following a rough first-round series during which his line failed to mount much of a threat at even strength, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s offensive catalyst rediscovered his postseason form against the Florida Panthers. He posted seven points in four games and conjured up his magic in high-leverage moments to break the Panthers’ will.

But there was more to this sweep than Kucherov’s individual brilliance. Veteran pest/power forward Corey Perry joined the club that ended his last two Stanley Cup Final runs (with Dallas and Montreal), and the 37-year-old has fully bought into his role as an opportunistic scorer. In Round 2, he added salt to Florida’s wounds by scoring as many goals as the Panthers did in the series. It wasn’t strictly about points either. He offered the revamped bottom-six a stabilizing presence at both ends of the ice.

Though he’s never been the swiftest skater and certainly isn’t getting any faster, Perry remains an effective player due to his keen hockey sense. His composure and vision are particularly apparent in his puck management:

The Lightning, who don’t seem quite as sharp this year, have developed a bad habit of coughing up pucks in dangerous areas. That’s why they don’t govern as much of the action at 5-on-5. They rank 10th out of 16 teams in expected goal percentage (49.1 xGF%). Perry can’t single-handedly mitigate this issue, of course—he’s one player, and a depth player at that—but his savvy has routinely prevented Tampa Bay’s bottom-six from shooting itself in the foot.

Thanks to his feel for the game, he can facilitate the Lightning’s transition from defense to offense. He has no problem navigating the neutral zone minefield, either connecting on a quick pass or outwaiting forecheckers to find the best outlet available. He’s patient, he’s calm and he possesses the caginess required to bail the Lightning out of sticky situations.

As a result, the team isn’t stuck defending for long stretches during his shifts. Among the 11 Lightning forwards who logged regular minutes in Round 2, Perry conceded the third-fewest expected goals. Overall, Perry’s five-man unit owned the lion’s share of chances, high-danger chances and expected goals at 5-on-5 (53.8 SCF%, 66.7 HDCF%, 55.6 xGF%). In other words, head coach Jon Cooper could rest easy knowing that he had an elder statesman he could rely on in the heat of battle. Perry was always there to restore some balance to the proceedings.

Consequently, his average ice time rose from 9:50 in the first round to a whopping 15:18 in the second. Perry rewarded his bench boss’ faith through not only his sound decision-making but also the kind of secondary scoring (3 goals in 4 games) that every title contender craves:

Granted, there isn’t much sizzle there anymore. This isn’t the 2010-11 MVP at his peak. However, he’s an excellent net-front disruptor who understands how to draw attention and block goaltenders’ sightlines. He’s also a solid playmaker with a knack for slowing the game down and picking out quality passes. Well, I suppose it’s hard for him to get much slower at this point, but he makes the snail’s pace work to his benefit.

Moreover, he’s still got some creative juice left. Every now and then, Perry will pull out a nifty deke that generates something out of absolutely nothing. Even if it isn’t clean, the puck just…follows him around. He’s very skilled in a very understated manner. Opponents don’t appreciate how deep his bag of tricks is.

Throw in some clever off-puck movement and deft finish in tight, and you’ve got an annoying and productive complementary forward. He knows where to be and how to make an impact in any scenario.

Against the Panthers, that translated to stellar offensive numbers. Across all four second-round series, 50 forwards logged at least 40 minutes at 5-on-5. Perry ranked sixth in high-danger chances, seventh in expected goals and seventh in points per 60 minutes. He also chipped in two huge power play goals while filling in for Brayden Point (lower-body injury) on the top unit. It bears repeating that this production came from a 37-year-old bottom-six forward—not a star in his prime.

Perry’s buy-in has even extended to the defensive side of the puck:

While he’ll never be mistaken for a Selke candidate, his hockey IQ, long reach and 6’3”, 206-pound frame allow him to win pucks or throw a wrench into the opposition’s attack. This is crucial because Tampa Bay’s back-against-the-ropes defense lives and dies by its collective willingness to sacrifice. There’s no room for a weak link.

Obviously, Perry didn’t lead the charge against the Panthers. Kucherov’s dynamic offense and Andrei Vasilevskiy’s superb performances between the pipes are the biggest reasons that the Lightning are headed to their third straight Eastern Conference Final. He was a key figure nevertheless, making smart plays and scoring timely goals to push his team over the top. Any time Florida attempted to climb back into the fight, Tampa Bay would answer with a crushing blow. But where the headliners would simply overwhelm their opponents, Perry would sneak his blade in from the side and twist the knife.

17 years into his career, he’s reminding us that he’s still a real handful in the postseason.

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