Saturday, May 21, 2016

Ryan Callahahan ... a true leader for the Lightning

By Larry Wigge

It was in his eyes. It was all over his face.

Ryan Callahan set the tempo after the Tampa Bay Lightning had lost their heart, they had lost their grit and tenacity in the last two games of the playoffs.

The former Captain of the New York Rangers sparked them.

"We had played too nice in the last two games," Callahan explained before the game. "We needed some spark. We need to play with a gritty attitude, to show them a fearlessness, to shake things up."

And then he went out there for the opening faceoff, chasing the puck behind the net. He checked hard and often. He saw the puck go back to defenseman Victor Hedman and fought a defenseman to get in front, where Callahan got his stick on puck that dropped and eluded goaltender Matt Murray for a goal just 27 seconds into the contest.

He was a monster out there ... as the Lightning built up a 4-0 lead and his never-say-quit attitude carried throughout for a crucial 4-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins to even Eastern Conference final series at two games apiece.

Callahan was at agitating best along the boards and in front of the nets. He led all players with five shots on goal in the first period. He blocked three shots on the night, tied for the game lead.

His presence was so overwhelming that you swore that half the Lightning team was wearing No. 24.

"That's the start we needed," head coach Jon Cooper said after the game. "You want your team to make a push. You want them to say, 'OK, we're making a stand. We got embarrassed at home in Game 3, let's make a stand.' And you can't ask for anything more than Callahan scores on the first shift at 27 seconds in.

"I don't think anybody'd sat down yet and they didn't need to. The energy in the building after we scored, it just pushed and we carried that through. You can't say enough about Ryan Callahan and his positive effect on our team."

"To start out with a goal on the first shift," winger Jonathan Drouin said. "He plays the same way every night. He's an honest player. He's ticking off a lot of guys. It's definitely something you want. He's definitely someone you want on your team."

"He's a huge part of our team." defenseman Matt Carle said. "Even on the nights that he's not on the score sheet, he's still making a difference. I don't know how many times I played against him when he was in New York. You always knew when he was on the ice and generating a forecheck, getting in on the forecheck. He's a hard guy to play against and certainly a guy you like having on your team."

The energy in the building was raucas and loud.

"I don't necessarily go out there and say I'm going to try to get under the other guy's skin," Callahan said. "I go out there and play my game and try to finish my checks, go to those dirty areas. Playing against guys like that sometimes that can frustrate, knowing that the player's always coming at you.

"I thought it was our energy, our compete, the way we executed was a lot better than it was in the previous game."

He'll put the Lightning sweater on his back and block shots and do anything within reason to win. He became known for his willingness to throw his body at opponents with reckless abandon. If there was a shot that needed blocking, Callahan was happy to throw whatever body part was available in front of it.

For years, the Callahans played the Giontas for the Stanley Cup finals on the cul-da-sac in Grapeview Circle outside of Mike and Donna Callahan's house in North Greece, N.Y.

"Now we're on the big stage," said Callahan of his friendships with Brian and Stephen Gionta, also in the NHL. "It's exciting. You get a chance to play on this stage, against one of your best friends growing up ... I'm happy. It's pretty special."

Said Stephen Gionta, "Something we've dreamed of is actually coming true."

"They’ve beaten the heck out of each other many, many times," said Sam Gionta, Stephen's father, "besides wrecking Mike's garage and house."

Callahan's garage and house aside it was a good place the play for the twosome.

It was five miles, door to door, from the Callahan house.

"We grew up together and we spent so much time together," Callahan said. "We were going out on the lake at his house or we were swimming in our pool."

When they weren't playing ball hockey or knee hockey or real hockey, that is. They were teammates for several years in Rochester Youth Hockey, but they could never get too much of the game.

The pick-up games in the driveway or on the street were highlights of many summer and winter days 15 and 20 years ago. The Callahan garage was the loser.

Oh, but the fun they had trying to one-up the other with the puck.

"Of course I outscored him," Callahan joked.

Those ball-hockey games were intense, too. You'd have thought they really were playing for the Stanley Cup.

In his first season as captain of the Rangers, Callahan has been outstanding -- posting 29 goals and 25 assists during the regular season and another five goals and four assists in 19 playoff games.

"I think I had a pretty tough road to get here," Callahan explained. "Size-wise, everybody thought I was too small for the style of game I play. In my first NHL camp, I didn't play in the Blue-White Game at the end of that camp. I was one of five kids who got sent right down to Hartford and didn't play in that game."

He's too small now at 5-10, 185 pounds for the style of game he plays. He'll throw his body in front of a shot. He's fiery. He's competitive. He loves to hit.

"I feel like I'm a guy who crashes and bangs and hits a lot," Callahan continues. "I love contact.

"Sceptics? I just used it as motivation more than anything. I don't think I do anymore. I hope I've shut up all my critics."

He grew up a Buffalo Sabres fan. Pat LaFontaine was his favorite player. He was until ...

"I'd say my biggest hockey inspiration would probably be Brian Gionta," he said. "Our families are pretty close. Just looking up to him and seeing everything he's done really inspires me."

Most Painful Moment: "When I was younger, actually got cut from travel team, that was pretty painful when I was 14."

That was Callahan's reputation in the NHL -- a player who was hard-working, a leader, someone who would do whatever it took to win. He deserves all the credit for being a self-made star. Most of his points came from his drive and determination in going to prime scoring areas in the offensive zone. He will not be intimidated when confronted in a tough, physical game.

A lot of kids in hockey turn out to prove people wrong, but few have come as far as Ryan.

He didn't go through the draft unpicked like Stephen Gionta. The Rangers drafted Callahan in the fourth round that year, with the 127th overall pick, in the 2004 Entry Draft as he continued to be undervalued.

"I was with another team at the time," said Gordie Clark, the Rangers' player personnel director, who was with the Islanders. "Me and the scouts around the league, we'd watch Callahan's play skyrocket and take comfort in knowing that we all blew it."

"We've all had our hits and misses," Clark continued. "I'm telling you, I didn't draft Ryan Callahan, but his is the name that always comes up. Everyone marvels at what he's accomplished. He's listed at 5-foot-11, but he plays like he's 6-3."

So, you don't have to do to much to rev Ryan Callahan up to lead his team in a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

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