How Lightning's Corey Perry found new life in the twilight of his career

Watch as Tampa Bay Lightning forward Corey Perry redirects teammate Steven Stamkos' shot past Florida Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky to open the scoring in Game 2 of their Stanley Cup Playoff series.

It’s been a decade and a half since Corey Perry was standing out on the ice under the Honda Center lights, hands raised, taking the Stanley Cup from Anaheim Ducks teammate Travis Moen and lifting it aloft amid a flurry of cheers.

He was 22 years old at the time, just two years into a big-league career that’s kept rolling into his late 30s. Back then, it seemed so easy. The first of many. The start of a California dynasty. 

"Sometimes when you win it so young, you take it for granted," Perry said earlier this year of that ’07 run. “You never know if you're going to get this chance again. You may not make the playoffs ever again. … When you're 22 years old and you get your name on the Cup, you have no idea. 

“You think it's going to happen every single season, but it took me 14 years to get back.”

It took him a decade of disappointment a painful departure from the only NHL organization he'd ever known, but since Perry’s gotten back, he’s refused to leave.

After playing out 988 games with the Ducks and seeing the best years of his career — a 50-goal Hart- and Richard-winning season in 2010-11, a 43-goal effort a couple years later — end in early summers, Perry has found new life in the twilight of his career.

He heads into the third round of these Stanley Cup Playoffs in the midst of his third straight deep post-season run. First came that trek back to the Cup Final with the Dallas Stars in 2020, then another with the Montreal Canadiens in 2021. Now, he finds himself back in the spotlight yet again, with a Bolts squad looking every bit a favourite once more.

And all the way through, Perry has managed to turn roll-the-dice opportunities into impact performances.

Through the first two rounds of this run from the Bolts, a team well-stocked with names who bring to mind even better-stocked trophy cases, it’s not Steven Stamkos or Nikita Kucherov leading the pack when it comes to putting the puck in the net. It’s the resident vet, Perry, his five goals through 11 games tied with fellow depth forward Ross Colton for the team lead.

Odd as it may seem, though, it’s par for the course for the one fans have dubbed "Scorey Perry."

Since leaving Anaheim, Perry’s put up 14 post-season goals over his three playoff runs — tied for the sixth-most anyone in the league’s amassed. And while he’s racked up more playoff games than anyone in that span, those 14 goals have come with Perry averaging just 13 and a half minutes of ice a night — the least of anyone in the top 35 goal-scorers over that three-year span.

Ask the two-time champion Lightning — no strangers to big-moment experience themselves — what Perry means to their team, and the value of adding a guy who’s played more playoff hockey than anyone in the game over the past three years is clear as crystal.

“It doesn’t seem like at any moment he’s ever fazed by anything,” head coach Jon Cooper said of Perry earlier this month in Toronto, back when his club had been stumbled by a Game 1 shellacking. “You know, on the bench, he’s always talking. He’s like a pseudo-assistant coach out there, just because of his knowledge. He sees it. 

“It’s his been-there-done-that (attitude). He carries such a weight of respect, that when he speaks — which isn’t a ton — everybody listens. And then he backs it up with his play on the ice. What a wonderful person he is. But he’s a fierce competitor — and the guys follow him.”

Ryan McDonagh, a veteran of more than a decade in the league himself, with two championship rings to his name, marvels at Perry’s presence too. He has a minute understanding of the ebbs and flows of these high-stakes affairs.

“It’s a lot of things. To sit here and talk about Perrs and what he means to us, I could be here for a while,” McDonagh said before the third installment of his club’s first-round series, after Perry had registered a breakaway beauty a game earlier. “I think his experience speaks volumes — his awareness on the ice, his reads on the ice. Just his feel about the game within the game. Whether one team’s got the momentum or not, how do we get it back on our side, how do we keep it on our side, how do we make them pay when it is going our way. 

“Just a great awareness of where our group is at — if something needs to be said, he’ll say it. If something needs to be done, he’ll do it. He’s been a big-time performer, and proven it over the course of his career.”

He’s done everything asked of him and more since first donning a Bolts jersey earlier this season. Suiting up for every game of the season for the first time in half a decade, Perry put up 19 goals and 40 points from Tampa Bay’s bottom six — the 10th time in his career he’s finished near or above the 20-goal plateau, and the first time since he left California.

And then came the post-season. A pair of goals against Toronto, goals in three straight games against Florida, penalties drawn, scrums started, momentum built. When the Bolts suffered a devastating loss in the first round, losing heart-and-soul centreman Brayden Point in Game 7, it was Perry who stepped in to pick up the slack on the power play.

“He’s a Hall of Famer,” Kucherov said of his new man-advantage mate. “He knows what he’s doing.”

As the team now heads into its third series of this run, Perry’s trio of power-play goals sit level with Kucherov’s for the team lead.

“He’s been a hell of an add for us,” Cooper said of his veteran Swiss Army knife. “If I look at what he ended up statistically at the end of this year, that is icing on the cake. Bringing him in, for what he brings to our locker room, his pedigree, all that stuff — that was as advertised. But his on-ice product’s been better than I’d imagined. 

“That’s just typical him — big moments, big times, Perry’s there.”

Ask No. 10 himself about that all-encompassing impact, though — about how he transforms from the mild-mannered teammate he is off the ice, showing up early, putting his head down and going about his business, to the one doing everything on the sheet from mucking it up in front of the net to sniping off stretch-pass breakaways — and Perry shrugs it off.

“It just grows, I guess, naturally,” he said earlier in these playoffs, when asked about how he’s become the veteran leader he is for this already-veteran team. “If you know me, I’m pretty quiet away from the rink.

"On the ice, I’m a little bit different. The old light-switch flips, and I’m a different person. That’s just who I am.”

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