TAMPA -- The Tampa Bay Lightning are headed for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2011. They wouldn't have gotten there without unheralded rookie forward Tyler Johnson.
That's why it was appropriate that Johnson's shorthanded goal with 7:19 remaining in regulation Tuesday night turned out to be the game-winner in a 3-1 victory against the Montreal Canadiens that assured the Lightning of a return to the postseason.
"It's awesome, especially in my first year," Johnson said of making the playoffs. "As a kid growing up you want that chance to win the Stanley Cup and right now we have that chance. Once you're in there, anything can happen."
Johnson's goal Tuesday was his 23rd of the season and tied him for the lead among rookies with Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche. It also matched the rookie record for goals by a Tampa Bay Lightning player, set by Steven Stamkos in 2008-09.
"It's a tremendous honor but I'm not really looking at it at all," the 23-year-old said. "Stamkos did that when he was 18 years old. When I was 18, I was still playing juniors. There is a little bit of a difference."
But unlike MacKinnon and Stamkos, both of whom were taken with the first pick in their draft year, Johnson wasn't drafted by anyone. He spent four seasons in junior hockey and two more in the American Hockey League before making the Lightning during training camp last fall.
Differences aside, Johnson has proven his adeptness at scoring shorthanded, and he demonstrated that again when he beat Montreal's Carey Price with a backhander over the goaltender's shoulder.
"Somehow the puck came up the wall," said Johnson, whose five shorthanded goals tied him with Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins for the League lead. "I think it was a missed pass. (P.K.) Subban was a little bit low and I had a lot of speed so I was able to get by him and Price, I don't think, thought I could get to my backhand so he over-challenged me there. Luckily for me I was able to get the puck to my backhand and get it up and find a way."
Lightning coach Jon Cooper counts on Johnson in all situations.
"He's done so much for our team," Cooper said. "I didn't realize that he tied Stamkos' rookie record, so it was cool to hear that. It comes down to you need your special teams to be good when you get to the playoffs. After the shorthanded goal we were just riding a wave of emotion after that.
"He's got good instincts, and the X factor is his speed. It looks like he was shot out of a cannon. He made a great move on a world-class goalie. He froze him for a little bit and then reached around and elevated the backhand. Speed kills and that kid has got it. Give him some open ice and he will get by you. That's what he did tonight."
Following the win, Lightning owner Jeffrey Vinik briefly addressed the team. For Vinik, who bought the Lightning in March 2010, this is the second trip to the playoffs.
"I just spoke to the guys for about 30 seconds," Vinik said. "I congratulated them. Goal number one every season is to make the playoffs and it's a long grind with ups and downs and good news and bad news and they accomplished the objective and I'm proud of the job they did.
Vinik's assessment left no doubt that he expects even more from the team.
"The guys feel good but I don't think they are satisfied by any means at this point," Vinik said. "We still have six regular season games left and frankly I think they want the home ice advantage in the first round. They seemed pretty hungry to me."
Author: Lonnie Herman | NHL.com Correspondent