In Friday night’s 6-3 Tampa Bay win over Pittsburgh, however, all three members of, arguably, last year’s top line in the NHL, were back to their old selves, providing major contributions in an important Eastern Conference win for the Bolts
The Lightning have been pretty good this season with one, maybe two of the Triplets producing in any given game.
But to have all three playing at their peak?
Just like last year?
(That noise you might have heard was a collective groan from the rest of the NHL.)
Behind seven points (3 goals, 4 assists) combined from Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov, the Lightning defeated Pittsburgh for the second time in two tries this season and improved to 10-1-0 over their last 11 games. The Bolts are currently on an eight-game winning streak at Amalie Arena, the longest active home win streak in the NHL, and moved into sole possession of second place in the Atlantic Division, two points ahead of Boston and four above Detroit.
Since Johnson, Palat and Kucherov figured so prominently in Friday night’s win, we figured we’d highlight the play of each in today’s 3 Things, the Triplets edition.
1. JOHNNY’S BACK
Three of the last four seasons, Tyler Johnson has played hockey well into June, first as a member of a Norfolk Admirals team that won a Calder Cup in the American Hockey League in 2012, then playing for the Syracuse Crunch when they advanced to the Calder Cup Final in 2013 and finally last season as part of Tampa Bay’s run to the Stanley Cup Final.
Johnson also had an injury he picked up during last year’s playoff run that lingered into the summer and kept him from readying himself the way he normally would during the offseason.
The physical grind from the last few seasons finally took its toll on the 25-year-old center this season. Johnson, who scored 29 goals to rank tied for second on the Lightning in 2014-15, was shut out in October and didn’t net his first goal until game No. 13 of the season on November 1 in Carolina. Midway through November, he sustained an upper-body injury and was in and out of the lineup until the beginning of 2016.
Upon returning to the lineup for good, Johnson had still only scored once before the All-Star break. But since that much-needed six-day rest from the game, Johnson has come back extremely strong and has looked as good as he has all season.
He’s scored in two-straight games, both power-play goals, including his second-period tally Friday night that gave the Bolts a two-goal cushion. Against the Penguins, Johnson recorded a goal and two assists for his first three-point night of the season.
“Johnny’s really found his stride here the last little bit,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said.
Johnson’s speed, one of his main attributes throughout his career, hadn’t really been present through the first half of the season. But it was on full display Wednesday against Detroit and again Friday versus the Penguins. Following the victory over Pittsburgh, Johnson said he’s “getting into the game more often” and able to read plays and think two steps ahead.
“That All-Star break came at a perfect time,” he said. “I started to feel healthy, but there’s a lot more than just having your body feel good. You have to be mentally there. It was frustrating. The beginning of the season was maybe the most adversity I think I’ve ever faced on a personal level. I think that All-Star break kind of came at a great time for me to kind of get away from the game, get away from the sport, just kind of refocus so when I came back, start fresh, start a new page, and I think I’ve been playing well.”
Having Tyler Johnson finally 100 percent makes a pretty dangerous Lightning team even more deadly.
2. SO IS PALAT
Lightning left wing Ondrej Palat was in a nearly identical situation to the one his good buddy and former linemate Johnson faced.
Palat, too, was weary from back-to-back-to-back-to-back years playing deep into the season. And although he didn’t have an offseason injury to deal with like Johnson, Palat perhaps wasn’t ready for the start of another long, grinding season when it began back in October. Through the first 16 games, Palat scored just two goals and had five assists.
Then, in Minnesota, his leg was crushed by the weight of Nino Niederreiter falling to the ice, and the subsequent lower-body injury kept him out of the next 12 games. When Palat finally did return, he was back only briefly as the same leg was knocked again in Washington, forcing him to miss another eight games.
Palat has been in the lineup for 13-straight games now since returning on January 2, and, like Johnson, he too is starting to hit his stride after some time.
Palat moved up to the top line alongside Vladislav Namestnikov and Steven Stamkos to form one of the Lightning’s more dynamic lines this season. That combination has been a point producer since its inception.
On Friday, Palat showed more glimpses of his dynamism. His shorthanded breakaway goal in the second period was a thing of beauty, Palat deking seven times before finally sliding the puck five-hole underneath Marc-Andre Fleury, who was lucky not to tear a groin muscle considering the leg split Palat forced him into with his fancy maneuvering.
Later in the game, with Pittsburgh threatening to tie, Palat combined with his new linemates Stamkos and Namestnikov to produce the game-clinching goal.
Palat’s multi-goal game was his first of the season and sixth of his career.
“(Palat and Johnson) broke down early in the year, and both got hurt,” Cooper said. “You don’t want to say any good comes from injury, but they were hurt and they both got to rest for anywhere from 15 to 25 games, whatever it was. They are two extremely important players on our team. And now you get everybody back…Those guys now, their bodies, they got a mid-season rest. They’re playing as good as I’ve ever seen them play right now.”
Like Johnson, Palat finally seems to have his trademark speed back.
“At the beginning of the year, he just blended in with everybody else, and now he’s pulling away from everybody else,” Cooper said. “And that’s the difference. When he’s going like that, his competitiveness, his ability to put the puck in the net, make other players better, it all starts with his speed, and that’s where he’s really turned the corner.”
What more really needs to be said about the season Nikita Kucherov is having in his third year with the Lightning.
Other than maybe goaltender Ben Bishop, Kucherov has been the Bolts MVP to this point in the season.
Last night, while Johnson and Palat were rightfully taking center stage, Kucherov quietly contributed two assists. That gives him points in 18 of his last 20 games, the 22-year-old Russian recording 10 goals and 17 assists over that 20-game period.
Kucherov is the Lightning scoring leader with 45 points (21 goals, 24 assists) and ranks tied for 16th in the NHL for points. When the Lightning offense was struggling to find points or consistency earlier in the season, Kucherov was the one consistent Bolt providing it. .
Now that the Lightning seem to have regained their offensive form from last year, Kucherov’s contributions haven’t wavered.
“It’s just been fun,” Johnson said. “We’ve been having a good time, and we’ve just got to keep on going and try to get better.”
That’s a scary proposition for the rest of the NHL.