TRAIKOS: How has Corey Perry ‘wormed’ his way to a third straight Stanley Cup final?

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TAMPA, Fla. — Like a gambler riding a hot hand, Corey Perry sure knows how to pick ’em.

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Two years ago, I signed a one-year contract with the Dallas Stars and went to the Stanley Cup final. A year later, he was back in the final after signing a one-year deal with the Montreal Canadiens. So when the 37-year-old decided to join the Tampa Bay Lightning as a free agent last summer, the odds of them going back to the final seemed to be a safe bet.

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“I’ve been lucky,” said Perry.

Well, he’s been lucky and unlucky at the same time.

Though Perry is in his third championship final in the past three years — all with different teams — so far he’s been on the losing end each and every time. Still, some players never even get that close. And for a long time, Perry was one of them. After winning a Stanley Cup in his second year in the league, he spent the next decade or so wondering if he was ever going to get close to winning another.

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“When you get there at such a young age, you think it’s going to happen over and over and over again,” said Perry. “And it took me 13, 14, 15 years to get back. Now it’s three in a row. It’s exciting. It never gets old, I’ll tell you that.”

It’s exciting, because it’s also unexpected.

After all, it was only a few years ago when the Anaheim Ducks bought out the remaining two years of Perry’s eight-year, $69-million contract. At the time, Perry’s production was in decline. And following knee surgery, so was his health. Some wondered if he’d ever get back to being a top-six forward. Others questioned if he could even play in the NHL again.

For the Peterborough, Ont., native, it was a turning point in his Hall of Fame career.

“It wasn’t easy being bought out, I’ll tell you that,” said Perry. “For the ego, for everything. But I checked that at the door when I got to Dallas. I just accepted whatever they gave me. I was just out to prove to everybody that I could continue to play hockey in this league and that’s all I’m really trying to do, is be effective on the ice and help the team win any way I can.”

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Looking back, getting bought out may have been the best thing to happen to him. It freed Perry from the shackles of earning $8.625 million — and trying to justify all that money — and allowed him to reinvent himself. He went from being a Hart Trophy winner who had scored a league-leading 50 goals in 2010-11 to being a fourth-line pest who was more concerned with getting under the other team’s skin than getting goals or glory.

“To me, if you’re making more money, then there’s more pressure on you. That’s a no-brainer,” said Perry. “But I just want to play hockey. I really don’t care. I just want to play hockey.”

By “play hockey,” Perry means he wants to win. And by win, he means he is willing to do whatever is necessary to end up on top. Described by Brian Burke as a “mean son of ab – – ch ,” teammates have long called him ‘The Worm,’ because he has a way of slithering into those hard-to-reach areas where others just aren’t willing to go — and do the kind of things that others might find tasteless.

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We saw a bit of that in Game 2 of the final, when Perry “accidentally” got his stick caught in Darcy Kuemper’s pads, and then proceeded to punch the Colorado Avalanche goalie in an effort to get loose. Or when he and JT Compher wrestled each other to the ice inside the goalie crease, and then Perry put his knee on Compher’s ankle while standing back up.

Call it dirty or gamesmanship, if you want. But that is why the Lightning — who were probably tired of seeing Perry pull those antics on Tampa Bay players during the past two Stanley Cup finals — signed him to a two-year, $2-million contract last summer.

“I think you always get what you want from Corey Perry,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. “I think that’s why he’s been in the league this long. Because there’s so many things that go on away from the ice that you always get what you want from Corey Perry. He says the right things. At times the games get a little chaotic, Corey Perry is always there to calm things down. It’s priceless, what he brings to our team.”

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It’s not just the chaos that he brings. Perry, who scored 19 goals and 40 points in the regular season, has chipped in with five goals and eight points in 19 playoff games. Not bad, considering he’s been averaging less than 13 minutes in ice time.

“It’s not a coincidence that he’s been one of the best players in the final in the past couple of years,” said Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh. “He’s scored big goals, he’s gotten in the face of guys, he’s brought energy when his team is down. Like I said, he’ll lay it on the line for his teammates.”

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With another year remaining on his deal, Perry isn’t done yet. And based on his ability to pick winners, maybe neither is Tampa Bay.

“You play this game to win,” said Perry. “You don’t play this game just to get here… that’s what keeps me going. I want to win. Not just one. But another one.

“And another one after that.”

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