Since Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper switched up the team's lines during a 3-2 overtime win in Chicago on Thursday, Tyler Johnson has moved back to his more familiar center position, playing between Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman.
Those two have skated almost exclusively with Yanni Gourde as their center since arriving in Tampa Bay at the trade deadline last season, and that combination's tenacity and defensive prowess combined with a propensity for contributing at opportune times offensively was a key in the Lightning's run to lifting the Stanley Cup in 2020.
But during the Lightning's restart training camp coming out of the pause, Johnson was initially slotted in between Goodrow and Coleman before Gourde got the assignment and made himself a permanent fixture both in the playoffs and to start this season.
Cooper's latest line change has Johnson back at center, where he was temporarily during the restart.
And the move has been a successful one, not just for Johnson but for all four of Tampa Bay's lines
In Tuesday's come-from-behind win in Detroit, Johnson's line combined for a pair of goals. The first, a tip at the net by Johnson off of Coleman's shot from the point, gave the Lightning a 2-1 lead heading into the first intermission. The second came in overtime as Mikhail Sergachev sent a stretch pass up ahead to the opposite blue line for Johnson, catching the Red Wings in a line shift and sparking a two-on-one that Coleman converted for his first career overtime goal in the 4-3 victory.
Video: Johnson | 3.10.21
That goal ended a six-game goal drought for Coleman. And Johnson's earlier goal ended his nine-game slump without a goal.
"I think playing with those guys is something different," Johnson said of his time with Coleman and Goodrow following Tampa Bay's practice session in Detroit Wednesday. "I've never really played with them for an extended amount of time. Being able to do that has been a lot of fun. I think we have a lot of chemistry. We're creating a lot of good chances. We could have had a lot of goals the last three games. As long as we continue to play that way, continue to learn from each other and learn where each other's going to be, just kind of build on that chemistry, it's huge. When you change things up, it's kind of a fresh start and it's been fun so far."
Johnson's favored position, he admits, is in the middle. But with the emergence in recent seasons of centermen Brayden Point and Anthony Cirelli as well as Tampa Bay's depth at the position, he's played primarily the wing.
Adjusting to a return to center hasn't been difficult for Johnson.
"You just try to play wherever the team needs you, whatever line it may be, doing whatever role it is," Johnson said. "That's kind of been the biggest thing for me. It's working right now. It's fun to play with them, and hopefully we just continue doing that."
Tampa Bay's current lines aren't likely to stick for the duration of the season. Cooper likes to mix them up periodically to provide a spark.
But while he's between Coleman and Goodrow, Johnson is just trying to make the most of the new opportunity.
"I think we have three games now, we're getting a lot of chances, playing a lot in the O zone, not very much in the D zone," he said. "It's been really good. We're still trying to learn each other a little bit, but I enjoy being around those guys and playing with them."
THE EMERGENCE OF CERNAK: Erik Cernak was a question mark to play in Tuesday's game at Detroit after suffering an upper-body injury two nights earlier against Chicago sustained following a hard hit up high from the Blackhawks' Connor Murphy.
The Lightning are certainly glad he was able to go.
Cernak scored the game-tying goal midway through the third period to force overtime, where the Lightning eventually won on Blake Coleman's goal to extend their point streak to a season-high nine games. Cernak also contributed an assist in the first period and dropped the gloves with the Red Wings' Anthony Mantha in the second, the 23-year-old defenseman recording the first Gordie Howe hat trick of his career.
Four games away from the 150th of his NHL career, Cernak has emerged as a stabilizing force on the right side for the Lightning. He's been partnered with Ryan McDonagh the past two seasons as the Bolts' shutdown pair. He's spent more time this season playing with other left-side partners like Victor Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev as the Lightning mix and match their pairings to work around injuries and get young defensemen like Cernak and Sergachev more playing time. And he's starting to get more confidence in his offensive abilities too, evidenced by his willingness to skate deep into the offensive zone to take Pat Maroon's pass in the right circle and beat Detroit goalie Thomas Greiss five-hole.
Cernak's growing offensive game is all a part of his development as a NHL defenseman and his maturation into one of the Lightning's more dependable players.
Video: Jon Cooper | 3.10.21
"He's been a promising defenseman since the day we acquired him," Cooper said. "When you're the physical specimen he is, now you see the size and strength, his skating was good when he was here and now it's borderline great. He gets around the ice well. His offensive instincts have improved. With that comes confidence. He's always had an ability to end plays down low and be physical on that side, but could his offensive game round out that part? He's done that. But that's with reps."
As Cernak spends more time with the Lightning and accumulates more games in the NHL, his game will continue to grow. Much like rookie defenseman Cal Foote, who's played in the last eight games - his longest continuous stretch in the lineup - and gotten more comfortable looking for his offensive game.
"Cal Foote's going to go through his growing pains," Cooper said. "He has this year, and now you're watching him take great strides in improving. And Cernak was the exact same way. And you just have to wait for these guys, their time comes, they get the reps and they get better."
THE STORY OF THE RANDOM DETROIT HORN: During the first period of Tampa Bay's win in Detroit, the horn inside Little Caesars Arena went off after every stoppage in play, a curious distraction but certainly nothing to get too concerned about.
Then the horn started blaring during play. One sequence in particular irked Cooper. The Lightning were on a power play and had just gotten set up in the offensive zone when the horn sounded. Everybody on both teams stopped, and the refs blew the whistle to find out what was going on.
When play resumed, the Lightning had to blow more time trying to reenter the zone, which resulted in a failed power-play opportunity.
"I thought I was at my kid's squirt game and they were wanting us all to change," Cooper joked after Tuesday's game. "It was unbelievable. So it was tough too because the first one that went off, it went off during what I thought was going to be a scoring chance on the power play. So I don't know. Obviously, there was a glitch in the clock, so every time play stopped and they stopped it, the horn went off. So I think there was 13 stoppages, the horn went off. And then it was going off randomly during the play."
Cooper said the officials explained the clocked needed to be reset to prevent the horn from going off unexpectedly again, but that would take 10 minutes. Rather than delay the game, the officials asked the players to continue through the horn, and they'd fix it during the first intermission.
The horn went off intermittently throughout the remainder of the first period but wasn't heard again the rest of the game, whatever issue plaguing it apparently repaired.
"The boys had to play through it which was somewhat difficult," Cooper said. "But they got used to it."