Lightning find missing puzzle piece in ‘mucker’ Ryan Callahan

Right winger Ryan Callahan has four goals and four assists since joining the Lightning.

Kim Klement

TAMPA, Fla. — Ryan Callahan is a mucker.

That’s the word Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper used Thursday morning to describe his new winger.

Callahan can play by the boards. He can scrap near the net. He can score the dirty goals that, in these closing weeks of the regular season, mean the difference between zero points and two.

"Mucker" sounds about right for Callahan.

It brings to mind someone sloshing through a swampy lagoon as part of a day’s work. It’s no label for the meek. Callahan, all 5-foot-11, 190 pounds of him, is a man’s man on the ice, and the Lightning should wonder where they would be without him.

"He’s a piece of the puzzle we needed," Cooper said. "I think anybody who looked at our team saw a pretty skilled, fast team. He brings another element to us."

The math is simple: Callahan, the former New York Rangers captain, joined Tampa Bay as part of the Marty St. Louis trade March 5. Since then, the Lightning have earned points in 10 of 11 games, including two on Thursday night at Tampa Bay Times Forum when they beat the New York Islanders 3-2 after a ridiculous 13-round shootout.

Callahan scored two goals during regulation in what was an ugly game. These were the type of goals that have made him famous throughout his eight years in the NHL. The first, early in the second period, came off a deflection of defenseman Radko Gudas’ shot. The second, early in the third, came off a rebound of defenseman Eric Brewer’s attempt.

None were easy. That’s how he likes it.

"That’s usually where I find my goals or where I score them — close to the net in one of those dirty areas," Callahan said Thursday. "And I get two tonight that way."

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A messy game was a fitting showcase for a player who makes a living getting down and dirty. It’s likely the Lightning would have lost Thursday had No. 26 skated instead of No. 24. St. Louis is a premier player, but he’s a Ford Mustang to Callahan’s Hummer.

St. Louis has earned his reputation for a reason, but he’s a finesse scorer. Callahan is a bang-your-body beast where it counts, always throwing around his weight, always making his presence felt. He has earned respect in a hurry.

"He plays like that every night," center Tyler Johnson said. "That’s the thing about him. He always gives us 100 percent. I think (Thursday) he got rewarded with the two goals. But you can’t say he doesn’t have that effort every single night."

It’s unfair to judge the St. Louis-Callahan trade after 11 games, but the numbers have revealed something intriguing. So far, Tampa Bay enjoys a lead in this thoroughbred race. Callahan has four goals and four assists since joining the Lightning. St. Louis has no goals and three assists in 12 games with the Rangers.

The past three weeks have been interesting.

St. Louis did so much good for Tampa Bay, and those contributions are remembered, but there are whispers that his absence is less of a setback than first thought. There are many reasons for the development: Steven Stamkos’ return; goaltender Ben Bishop’s continued strong play; solid production from Valtteri Filppula, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and more. This is more than a one-man show.

The collapse never came. Instead, a new foundation has formed much faster than expected.

Part of the reason? Callahan, of course.

"That’s what you expect from him every night," Bishop said. "The way he plays — he’s running guys over, he’s getting to the net in dirty areas, he’s scoring those dirty goals. So that’s exactly what you thought when you picked him up, and that’s exactly what we need. And he’s doing a great job."

And he can do more. Callahan knows the Lightning can’t play like they did Thursday and beat the Eastern Conference’s best. The Islanders skated with 10 rookies on their roster and, well, it showed in their inability to capitalize on Tampa Bay’s sloppy passing and little sustained pressure most of the night.

"We need to be better," Callahan said. "There’s no question our first two periods weren’t good enough. But I thought we responded."

That’s all that matters for now, and Callahan was a large reason for the answer.

Callahan plays hard. He plays well. He plays like the spark the Lightning needed in the dirty areas, someone who can dredge with the best of them, and his new team is better for his arrival. Funny how things work out.

"It’s a big two points for us," Callahan said, "especially this time of year."

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.