Corey Perry, left, and Jack Johnson aren’t the star players they once were for the Kings and Ducks, respectively, but they’re still playing critical roles in the Stanley Cup Final. (Chris O’Meara, Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)
The Stanley Cup Final has glowed with the megawatt brilliance of Colorado defenseman Cale Makar and forwards Valeri Nichushkin and Andre Burakovsky, who have created a feast of breathless rushes and dazzling puck movement while shredding the defense of two-time defending champion Tampa Bay with astonishing ease.
Colorado’s stars came up big in a 7-0 rout of the Lightning on Saturday at rowdy Ball Arena, ignited by first-period goals by Nichushkin (on the power play), former Duck Josh Manson (off a two-on-one with former Duck Andrew Cogliano) and Burakovsky’s rebound of a shot by Mikko Rantanen. The Avalanche will take a 2-0 series lead to Tampa for Game 3 and can be confident knowing 47 of 52 teams that won the first two games of the Final won the Cup.
“Does it suck losing a game like that? For sure. We’re not used to it. It doesn’t really happen to us,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “Is it going to happen at times? Yeah, it is. You just hope that it doesn’t happen in the Stanley Cup Final.”
But behind the stars on both teams are role players who have traveled hard roads to get here, players who add to hockey’s lore and lure with their tenacity and willingness to accept smaller roles than they once filled. They don’t always show up in highlight shows but they’re vital to team success.
Jack Johnson was told 10 years ago, if not in so many words, that the Kings would be better off without him when general manager Dean Lombardi traded him to Columbus two months before the playoffs. Lombardi turned out to be right: in return for Johnson and a first-round draft pick the Kings acquired forward Jeff Carter, the final piece in their 2012 Cup run and a productive leader in their 2014 triumph.
Corey Perry was told three years ago he’d lost the snarl that became his signature during the Ducks’ 2007 Stanley Cup championship run and in 2011 helped make him the only player in franchise history to be voted the NHL’s most valuable player. Then-GM Bob Murray was so sure the Ducks would be better off without Perry that he paid the abrasive but skilled right wing to not play for them, buying out the last two years of Perry’s contract.
Avalanche defenseman Jack Johnson controls the puck ahead of Lightning center Ross Colton during Colorado’s 7-0 victory in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday. (John Locher / Associated Press)
Johnson, a depth defenseman for Colorado until Samuel Girard was injured during the second round of the playoffs, and Perry, a fourth-liner for Tampa Bay, are long past their star turns. But each has boosted his team in important ways while enjoying an unlikely career rebirth.
Johnson, 35, played 12 minutes and 13 seconds on Saturday and was plus-two with one hit and one blocked shot. He came to Colorado’s training camp last September on a tryout, refusing to relinquish his dream of playing in a Cup Final. It came true in his 16th NHL season, in Colorado’s 4-3 overtime win Wednesday.
“It was everything I thought it would be,” he said before Saturday’s game. “I tried to stay pretty calm, cool and collected going into it, just knowing it’s another hockey game. The adrenaline was going to get going once I got out there on the ice with the atmosphere and the fans and everything. It was pretty incredible.”
He hasn’t been out of place. He has not only survived but thrived after bouncing around the NHL the past few seasons and filing for bankruptcy after his parents misappropriated $20 million of his earnings for themselves.
“You never know if you’re gonna get an opportunity to play for it. And we’ve worked so hard this year to get to this point where we now have an opportunity,” Johnson said. “You never know if we’re ever going to get back here. It took me this long to get this chance here. I think all the young guys understand that as well. It’s special, and we’re trying to make the most of it.”
Perry is the second NHL player, after Marian Hossa, to compete in three straight Cup Finals with three teams — and at this rate, he will be the first to lose all three. After falling to the Lightning with the Dallas Stars in 2020 and with the Montreal Canadiens in 2021, Perry joined Tampa Bay on a two-year, $2-million, free-agent contract. He believed he had more to give, and he has delivered five goals and eight points while being his old, annoying self around the net.
In the first period on Saturday, with the Lightning scrambling to stay within reach of the soaring Avalanche, Perry tangled with goaltender Darcy Kuemper to try and distract him during Kuemper’s 16-save shutout. In the second period, after Colorado extended its lead to 5-0 on another goal by Nichushkin and a terrific solo effort by Darren Helm, Perry got into it with J.T. Compher, getting minor penalties for roughing and unsportsmanlike conduct.
Lightning forward Corey Perry tries to shoot the puck in front of Avalanche goaltender Darcy Kuemper during the third period of Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final. (John Locher / Associated Press)
Being the villain is a fire that flared hotter than ever after the Ducks sent him packing.
“It wasn’t easy being bought out. I’ll tell you that. For the ego, for everything,” Perry said. “But I checked that at the door when I got to Dallas. I just accepted whatever they gave me. I was just out to prove to everybody that I could continue to play hockey in this league and that’s all I’m really trying to do, be effective on the ice and help the team win any way I can.”
He couldn’t do that on Saturday. Colorado, which finished off the scoring with short-handed and power-play goals by Makar in the third period, was too fast, too precise, too overwhelming. Perry might fall short again, while Johnson finally touches the Cup. The trail of the Stanley Cup turns out glorious for some and cruel to others but this year it’s a star-studded hit.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.