Cedric Paquette didn't make the Lightning's roster out of training camp. He didn't nail down a permanent job in Tampa Bay until January, when general manager Steve Yzerman told him to move out of a hotel.
The 21-year-old rookie then began the Stanley Cup Final as the Lightning's designated pest against Jonathan Toews, tasked with hounding the Chicago captain all over the ice and talking a little trash.
Three games into the Final, Paquette has seized yet another role and it has the Lightning halfway to a Stanley Cup title.
Paquette scored the game-winning goal in Game 3 on Monday night, skating down the middle and redirecting an exceptional pass from Victor Hedman for the clutch score with 3:11 to play.
After scoring just one goal in Tampa Bay's first three playoff rounds, Paquette has two goals in two games in the Final, scoring in each of the Lightning's wins. This outburst of offense is a surprise to just about everyone, including the good-natured forward himself.
"It's as if I'm not feeling a thing right now," Paquette said. "It's incredible, the emotions since the beginning of the season. Going down (to the AHL) and being recalled, since then I've matured. And even when things weren't going as well at the start of the playoffs, I just kept my game simple, and I think I'm being rewarded since the start of the finals."
Paquette was the second-youngest player on the ice in Game 3, but the pressure has meant little to him this spring. He has played a major role in holding Toews without a goal through three games, and his opportunistic scores have been comparably huge for the upstart Lightning.
"It's really unbelievable, the way he's been playing," Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said. "And now he's scoring big goals for us. He's a complete player out there. He goes against maybe the best centerman in the league and does an unbelievable job at it, winning faceoffs. Big faceoffs, too. We wouldn't have scored that third goal if we didn't win that faceoff, and then he's up there first guy to the net and gets rewarded. It's really fun to see."
Paquette played in two regular-season games and all four of Tampa Bay's postseason games last year, but he didn't win a role on the opening-night roster last fall despite making a distinct impression on his teammates.
"He was bugging me in training camp," forward Brian Boyle said. "I was like, 'Who the hell is this kid?' I didn't know him. Since then, he's been a huge asset for our team. He's learned so much. He's come so far this year."
Paquette came up for good in November, but went through a 29-game goal drought early in the season. Although he is the youngest player on the Lightning with a regular lineup spot, he has become increasingly valuable as a depth forward — and now he has broken out in the postseason.
Paquette didn't only cash in Hedman's pass late in Game 3. He also had the courage to block a windup shot from Chicago's Brent Seabrook as Tampa Bay hung on.
Paquette knows his job isn't nearly done against Toews, but he intends to keep working on the little things that got him to the big stage.
"Obviously, scoring the winning goal is really special," Paquette said. "Every hockey player dreams of that, and it's the same for me. But blocking shots is my job. Even though I score a goal, I'm not going to change my role on this team. I'm not going to score 50 goals next year. I'm still there to block shots late in games."