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Antoine Vermette Is Unlikely Goal-Scoring Hero For Blackhawks In Cup Final

CHICAGO (AP) — Antoine Vermette paid little attention when he was labeled a bust of a late-season acquisition for the Chicago Blackhawks. He didn't get discouraged when he was scratched three times earlier in the NHL postseason.

With two game-winning goals in the Stanley Cup Final, Vermette has answered every question about what the Blackhawks were getting when they paid a steep price to pick up the veteran forward from Arizona at the trade deadline.

And with a Stanley Cup title just one victory away for the Blackhawks in Game 6 on Monday night, Vermette insists he isn't changing that narrow focus — not thinking beyond his next shift to the moment when he could raise the silver trophy for the first time.

"I'm not focused as much on (big goals) as just trying to focus on the process and to have fun while I'm at it," Vermette said. "Just trying to help the team in different facets in which I can. Just keeping it simple — but obviously it's nice to contribute that way."

Vermette has contributed to heartbreak for the Tampa Bay Lightning in two of this series' three games in Florida, scoring the eventual winning goals in the third period. He banged home a rebound two minutes into the final frame of Chicago's 2-1 victory in Game 5 on Saturday night, putting the Blackhawks in position to clinch their third Cup in six seasons — and the first title of his 11-year NHL career.

"I read it somewhere that their coach in Phoenix said in big games, he comes up big," Chicago defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson said. "And it's definitely what he's been doing for us here."

Indeed, Vermette has been the closest thing to a hero while giving the closest thing to a breakthrough performance in this tight, tense Final otherwise devoid of individual superlatives — no surprise, since the cumulative score through five straight one-goal games is 11-10 to the Blackhawks.

He also scored the game-winner in the series opener at Amalie Arena, but goal-scoring is a secondary pursuit for Vermette, He went from being the Coyotes' top-line center to a two-way role player in Chicago — but only after scaling a steep learning curve.

"In the beginning, he tried to understand the system," forward Marian Hossa said. "I think after some time, he got the role, and he grew in that role unbelievably. He's a great centerman, and he's scoring right now big goals."

Vermette claims he never felt extra pressure to produce for the Blackhawks after they gave up their first-round pick in this month's draft and defenseman prospect Klas Dahlbeck to Arizona in the deadline trade for a player who will be an unrestricted free agent next month.

But then Vermette promptly didn't score a goal in 19 regular-season games for the Blackhawks, managing just three assists. His new role as a depth forward was more of an adjustment than he realized at first.

"The rhythm of the game is not the same compared to when you're used to playing 19 minutes a game," Vermette said. "But when I got here I also recognized what a great opportunity it was to play for this team. I just wanted to have fun and contribute in whatever way I could."

The 32-year-old Vermette has reached the point in a hockey career where wins matter more than accolades. He appeared in the 2007 Stanley Cup Final with the Ottawa Senators, but his career then wound through Columbus to Phoenix, where the Coyotes' surprising run to the 2012 Western Conference finals was his only deep postseason experience in the past seven years.

Vermette had just one game-winning goal in his first 68 career playoff games. He has three more game-winners in the Blackhawks' last nine games, including a double-overtime score in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals to keep Chicago in its series against the Ducks.

The game-winning goals against Tampa Bay aren't anything special to Vermette, who sees them as a byproduct of playing the Blackhawks' disciplined two-way game. He's one game away from the ultimate reward for that sacrifice.

"Right off the get-go, this was a great opportunity for me," Vermette said. "I want to make the best out of it. This is a good group, obviously a special team. I'm glad I'm here."

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press.

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