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The Game Five Hero, Five Years in the Making

Photo via NHL

By: Joseph Henry

Five years ago, the Tampa Bay Lightning made a selection during the fourth round of the 2016 NHL Draft. In game five of the 2021 Stanley Cup Finals, that player they selected secured a second-consecutive title for Tampa Bay. His name? Ross Colton.

Picked at 118th overall by the Lightning, Colton had a long journey to becoming a key contributor to the Bolts’ 2021 playoff run.

The Robbinsville, New Jersey, native played two years in the United States Hockey League (USHL) before being selected in the draft. Colton spent his time in the USHL with the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders. During the 2016 season he was second in the league in goals (35) and points (66).

Once drafted, Colton spent his next two years playing for the University of Vermont. The center played in 69 games for the Catamounts, tallying 28 goals and 50 points. Colton’s play at the junior and collegiate level propelled him to the next stage of his career.

In June of 2018, the Lightning signed Colton for two years on an entry level contract. He would spend those two seasons with Tampa Bay’s American Hockey League affiliate the Syracuse Crunch.

Colton skated 66 games in his first full season with the Crunch in 2018-19. He scored 14 goals and had 31 points. During his second year in Syracuse, Colton recorded 31 assists, 14 more than during the previous season. This resulted in a new professional career high 42 points.

Fast forward through the pandemic, the NHL bubble and the Lightning winning the 2020 Stanley Cup finals. This is where Colton’s story continues.

In October of 2020, Colton was re-signed by Tampa Bay on a one-year extension.

The long road paid off and he skated his first NHL game on Feb. 24, 2021. During that game against the Carolina Hurricanes, Colton scored his first NHL goal on only his second shift on the ice and his first shot. Victor Hedman circled the Hurricane net and found Colton right on the doorstep ready to slam it home.

He made history in that moment, becoming only the second player in Lightning history to score a game winning goal in their NHL debut.

Throughout the rest of the regular season Colton would lace up his skates 30 times. He contributed nine goals and three assists as the Bolts geared up to defend their title.

The NHL rookie appeared in all 23 games for Tampa Bay during the 2021 playoffs. Him and Tyler Johnson both put in four goals during the postseason. However, Colton had the most important goal of them all. The last one.

After dropping game four to the Montreal Canadiens, the Stanley Cup Finals shifted back to Amalie Arena. The Lightning held a 3-1 lead in the series. The Stanley Cup was once again in the building, and the Bolts were on a mission to celebrate in front of their fans, making up for the empty-arena celebration in Edmonton the season prior.

With a little over 13 minutes gone in the second period of game five, there was an eruption in Tampa Bay.

After a scrum along the boards, the puck came free to defenseman Ryan McDonagh. He skated parallel across the top of the offensive zone before dishing the puck to David Savard, who was crashing down the right side of the ice. Colton fought for position in the crease and his stick was down, ready to receive the pass from Savard. The puck slid right in front of Canadiens goaltender Carey Price, leaving Colton wide open for the tap in.

The captain Steven Stamkos was the first to rush Colton in celebration. The Lightning had a 1-0 lead and were just over 26 minutes away from reaching the promised land yet again.

Lightning goaltender and Conn Smythe winner Andrei Vasilevskiy finished what Colton started with a Stanley Cup clinching 22-save shutout.

The 24-year-old’s future in Tampa Bay is uncertain. The 2021 NHL Expansion Draft is July 21 and Colton is an unprotected player. Seattle will have a slew of Tampa Bay forwards to pick from if they choose to. Alex Killorn, Ondrej Palat, Yanni Gourde and Johnson are all available for the Kraken to grab.

Despite this being a time of uncertainty for Colton, two things will remain constant. His name is forever etched in the most famous trophy in sports and the words “Stanley Cup Champion” will be associated with him for the rest of his life. A solid reward for five years of grinding.

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