Szczechura Aiming to Make Tampa a Permanent Home
Paul Szczechura had endured nearly 60 minutes playing with a bruised, swollen right thumb – the result of blocking a shot on his first shift during a disheartening 3-1 loss to visiting Pittsburgh, yet there was still a hint of a smile as the 23-year-old center sat in front of his locker. Who could blame him considering he believes he’s possibly on the cusp of making Tampa Bay his home?
"This is minor, just something that’s painful that you play through," Szczechura said of his right hand. "It’s just a great feeling to be at home. I really felt I was up to speed."
Szczechura has been here before – 18 games prior to this latest recall during the Lightning’s three-game home stand, in fact. But it hadn’t been since a west-coast trip in early January that the Brantford, Ont. native had played at the NHL level. With this latest call-up and the knowledge that the Lightning are in the process of making several player moves to change the team’s fortunes next season, Szczechura knows he may have no better opportunity to make his mark than right now.
"I don’t want to be a guy who takes this for granted," Szczechura said. “When I was sent down the last time, I wanted to go back to Norfolk and work even harder there to make sure I got back here again.”
Szczechura came to the Lightning with a propensity for steady offensive play and a knack for scoring, recording 38 points in 67 AHL games with Iowa and Norfolk during the past three seasons following a stellar collegiate career at Western Michigan University. With Tampa Bay, he’s scored twice and earned his third assist during a first-period Martin St. Louis goal against visiting Carolina.
What may come as a surprise to some, but definitely not to Szczechura, is his ability to make the quick transition to the NHL game. Whether it’s the speed, agility or power of the top professionals in the business, often newcomers find the move from the AHL to be overwhelming.
But so steady has Szczechura been throughout his brief career, that when asked following the loss to Pittsburgh if it was still too early to evaluate the young centerman’s play, Lightning Interim Head Coach Rick Tocchet said, "Paul’s been here before. We know what he’s capable of. It’s been a good start, definitely."
Tocchet also noted that every Lightning player, including Szczechura knows “there’s an opportunity here” to not only make a statement for this season, but be a firm part of the foundation for what the coach hopes will be a quick return to the success the franchise has known.
It’s also an opportunity for Szczechura – pronounced Sha-hur-a – to potentially end the days of riding busses to places like Bridgeport, Ct. and Hershey, Pa. for games and finally end the wondering if the next day’s transactions page will include his name.
"At times it gets tough [moving back and forth from the AHL to the NHL], but that’s the nature of the sport," Szczechura said. "The one thing I learned is that whether you’re at Norfolk or here, you can’t take a day off. In order to stick here, you have to be mentally tough.
"You know the goal is to get here and find a way to stay."