TAMPA — Looking like a hunter stalking prey, Radko Gudas lined up Minnesota’s Kyle Brodziak and delivered a text book hip check, sending Brodziak head-over-heels into the side boards.
The play elicited a roar from the crowd and a retaliation penalty from Wild defenseman Marco Scandella.
When executed properly, the hip check is a lost art form capable of giving a lift to the bench and forcing opposing players to be on alert and keep their heads up.
Gudas might be the best around right now at doing just that.
“He picks his spots, his timing is down and sometimes he does put himself out of control, but he is one of those guys that has an innate ability to know when you are coming,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
“It’s not going to be long until everybody in the league realizes when he is on the ice. And that’s one of those guys that you are really happy is on your bench and not the other.’’
That imposing physical element used to be the only part of Gudas’ game he liked to play. The 6-foot, 205-pound defenseman would go on a seek-and-destroy mission each time he jumped over the boards, looking to deliver the big hit.
Often, however, that came with a sacrifice — taking himself out of position and exposing his defensive partner to odd-man rushes.
Having just that physical part of his game would have kept him in hockey for a long time and he would have been a fan favorite wherever he landed. But it wouldn’t have resulted in his ascension to a regular spot in a National Hockey League lineup.
So, as the Lightning rookie, who appeared in 22 games with Tampa Bay last season, made his way up the depth chart in the American Hockey League, he started to round out his game. He learned poise with the puck in the defensive zone. He became better at making decisions to get out of his own end.
He became a reliable defender the coaching staff can count on.
“You just have to play more and more (to learn that) and I’ve been playing big minutes the last two years in the minors and that has helped me a lot,’’ Gudas said. “And last year when I came up, I played with (Eric) Brewer and Matt Carle, and they helped me out.
“And sometimes that is hard, you start to panic when there are a lot of guys around, but once you start knowing you have a little more time, somebody talks to you. It takes a little while.’’
That’s what landed Gudas in the top four with the Lightning, without eliminating the physical prowess from his game. He is tied for sixth in the league with 34 hits entering Tuesday.
“It’s all part of his growth process where he was just kind of a blue-collar, nuts-and-bolts, ham-and-egger that would hit you and get of the ice,’’ Cooper said.
“Now, he still does that, but he makes plays and that’s what is turning him into a bona fide NHL defenseman. He’s really rounded out his play away from the puck and his play with the puck, instead of just a defenseman that hits you.’’
With a more well-rounded game, Gudas has been paired consistently with Carle. Eight games into the season, each averages more than 20 minutes per game.
“He is a fun player to play with who is very capable of making plays,’’ Carle said of Gudas. “I think we have a good chemistry, so it’s been good here early on.’’
With that more reliable style now part of his game, Gudas figures to stick around, imposing his on-ice presence for a long time.
“That’s what is going to keep me playing at this level, knowing when to go hit and when not to,’’ Gudas said. “It’s the type of hockey I like to play and I’m enjoying it.’’