Nick Cousins spent most of his first season with the Florida Panthers trying to carve out a role as a fourth-liner who lightened up the room.
He got his opportunity to play up in the lineup during these playoffs and he rewarded the Panthers with the overtime goal which sent them to the Eastern Conference Final.
And he still kept his sense of humor in the process.
“Cancel flight to Florida from Toronto?” Cousins quipped when he picked up the buzzing phone of a Maple Leafs reporter.
“We’ll save that one for next year.”
His quick one-liners have kept the locker room light when entering a growing list of high-pressure situations.
But when it is time to play, he gets serious and plays a hard, grinding game.
“Just don’t tell him that,” Panthers captain Sasha Barkov joked.
“He is one of those guys you love to have on your team. He’s joking around and keeping things loose and then when it’s game time, he is dialed in and he is not afraid to make those plays.”
Cousins has been known to make the right reads in the neutral zone to keep the pressure going, which created the M-O of Florida’s fourth line throughout the season.
But it’s that same will to apply pressure with some sneaky good hands that made coach Paul Maurice want to play him up in the lineup with MVP candidate Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Bennett midway through the first round.
“We’ve got a bunch of unique guys, and that’s a positive thing. Like Carter Verhaeghe is an unusual, unusual player in the way he is built and the way he shoots the puck and Nick Cousins is kind of the same way,” Maurice said.
“He plays in a fourth-line role, he is a gritty player and he plays hard. If there is a scrum, he might be the guy that’s in the middle of it all the time but what makes him unique is that he has a really good set of hands.
“For a guy in that role, it’s usually a penalty-killing or a grinding role but he has a good set of hands, good vision and he doesn’t mind hanging onto the puck a little bit. He can make a play, he can pop up in your lineup and play with players like Bennett and Tkachuk and have enough hands there to make that play.”
Cousins showcased all of the reasons why Maurice decided to play him up the lineup on the overtime winner.
He first broke up a few plays in the neutral zone to stave off the Toronto attack before being sprung up the ice by Radko Gudas following a big defensive-zone play of his own.
Cousins then slid over to the face-off circle with Gudas driving to the crease alongside him and kept Joseph Woll waiting with a quick toe drag before he let off a wrist shot with 4:28 to go in overtime to take down the Maple Leafs.
“So much credit to him,” Cousins said of Gudas.
“He broke the play off in our own end and he got it out to me and I was just fortunate enough to make a curl drag there and lucky enough to win it. All the credit to him. I think he even screened their goalie, too. It’s a big play by him that probably doesn’t get enough credit.”
But it was Cousins’ toe drag that opened up the space for the wrist shot to beat Woll blocker side to win it.
And it was a move that took skill and patience to pull off.
“Many other guys would have shot that right away,” Barkov said. “He made a nice move and scored.”
While Cousins is a veteran of 41 playoff games spread out over five playoff runs in Philadelphia, Vegas, Nashville, and now, Florida, he never experienced something quite like this.
He was often the fourth-line grinder who spent his overtime shifts grinding in the defensive zone trying to keep the game alive for the top lines to finish off.
In this moment, Cousins is a top-liner.
As the Panthers continue their quest for their first Stanley Cup, it was a moment Cousins will remember for quite a while.
“It’s one of those moments where you’ll grow up and tell your kids about,” he said.
“My daughter is only 11 months old, so that is something I’m going to tell her when she grows up. Big goal, big moment for our team, really special.”
FLORIDA PANTHERS ON DECK
STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS
PANTHERS (WC2) AT CAROLINA HURRICANES (MET1)
- When: TBA
- Where: PNC Arena, Raleigh
- TV/Radio: TBA
- Series Schedule: TBA
- Season Series: (Carolina won 2-1): Florida 3, Carolina 2 (Nov. 9); Carolina 4, Florida 0 (Dec. 30); Carolina 6, Florida 4 (April 13)
- All-Time Regular Season Series: Carolina/Hartford leads 71-46-10, 11 ties
- Postseason History: First Meeting
- How They Got Here — Carolina: d. New York Islanders in 6; d. New Jersey Devils in 5. Florida: d. Boston Bruins in 7; d. Toronto Maple Leafs in 5.