TAMPA -- This was the player the Chicago Blackhawks figured they’d be getting when they gave up a first-round pick and a prospect before the trade deadline.
Antoine Vermette struggled mightily after being dealt to the Blackhawks, even getting scratched three times earlier in these playoffs. But with three game-winning goals in the two most important rounds of the playoffs, the gamble will have been well worth it for the Blackhawks.
"He's got better every game," Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said after Saturday night’s 2-1 win put his team on the brink of a third Cup in six years. "I thought he had a great game tonight. Very timely goal. Big faceoff wins. Both zones tonight. Lot of wins. Positionally aware. Battled."
It’s the player the Arizona Coyotes knew for years. They were probably more surprised than anyone when Vermette looked so lost in his early weeks in Chicago. And you know that Quenneville would have got quite the scouting report from his old Hartford Whalers teammate and friend Dave Tippett, who loved coaching Vermette for the past four seasons in Arizona.
So yes, seeing the 32-year-old Vermette score his second game-winning goal of the Cup finals brought a smile on the faces of a few people with the Coyotes on Saturday night.
"Great teammate, cares deeply about winning and has a flair to come up big at the right time," Tippett told ESPN.com via text Saturday night. "Very happy for him as all his Arizona teammates are!"
They are indeed.
"It goes without saying how good of a guy he is," Coyotes captain Shane Doan told ESPN.com over the phone Saturday night. "He is such an enjoyable guy to be around. I’m just so happy for him. He deserves it. We knew here what kind of performer he was in the playoffs. It was just a matter of time before he got his chance and he’d make the most of it."
Former Coyotes assistant general manager Sean Burke echoed that sentiment.
"Vermy is the consummate pro," Burke said via text message. "Shows up every day and gives you what he has. Terrific person who cares about his team and teammates. As a player he does a lot of little things well and coaches trust him."
That trust was hard to earn at first for Vermette from Quenneville. New system but especially different role. After being the top dog in the desert as a No. 1 center, it took him a while to adjust to his new reality in Chicago.
"Obviously it’s not the same, you have to make that adjustment," Vermette, who becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1, said in French after Saturday’s win. "The rhythm of the game is not the same compared to when you’re used to playing 19 minutes a game. But when I got here I also recognized what a great opportunity it was to play for this team. I just wanted to have fun and contribute in whatever way I could. Obviously my ice time and my role is different but I’m trying to [take] advantage of this opportunity as best I can."
Linemate Kris Versteeg, whose terrific rush up the ice led to Vermette’s goal two minutes into the third period, said he’s spoken with Vermette about how to adjust on this team. After all, it’s Versteeg’s second tour of duty on the Hawks so he should know.
"Yeah me and him have talked quite a bit, and [Brad] Richards, talk about how it’s a different role when you come here and play," said Versteeg, who was a force on this night. "You got to understand that, you got to understand the situations you’re in, you might not be in where you’d be on other teams. You got to play the best with the ice time you’re given and try to contribute."
Added star winger Marian Hossa on Vermette: "I think in the beginning he tried to understand the system. I think after some time he got the role and he 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."
The Blackhawks over the past four weeks or so have finally seen the player they had competed against in Arizona.
"I read it somewhere that their coach in Phoenix said in big games, he comes up big and it’s definitely what he’s been doing for us here," Blackhawks blueliner Niklas Hjalmarsson said, citing Tippett. "He’s a guy that’s great in faceoffs and extremely nice guy off the ice too. He’s a great addition to the locker room and extremely nice guy, always plays as hard as he can out there. A lot of veteran presence."
It shows you though why so many trade deadline deals fail. Why the price isn’t worth it sometimes. It takes a while for players to adjust and integrate. The only reason this trade will have been worth it is that the Hawks made it all the way to the end and gave Vermette enough time to figure it out. That’s a luxury teams who lose out in the first or second round don’t get.
For Vermette, it also meant forgetting the high price GM Stan Bowman paid to get him and just focusing on the task at hand. He's now just one win away from his first-ever Cup.
"I was hoping to have a positive affect on the game," said Vermette. "That being said, if it comes with goals, great. If not, the details of the game matter so much. We talk it, it makes a big difference. ... You want to focus on the team structure, the team play, and if we do that consistently, eventually things will happen. When you get goals, you’ll take them. But it’s more the focus on the process and the way you establish your game and play the details of the game."
One more win and Hawks fans won’t remember the Vermette of March and April. They’ll remember the guy that scored three game-winning goals in the final two rounds.
"It’s not a fluke or luck, it’s been coming from hard work, and some patience," Versteeg said of Vermette. "And right now it’s paying off for him."