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Top Gun Line Ready to Fire on all Cylinders

by Mark Pukalo / Tampa Bay Lightning

Putting together a consistent, productive forward line that has staying power takes some trial and error.

Sometimes what looks good on paper does not translate to the ice. With other trios, it just takes patience.

Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Richard Panik bounced around with different linemates the first-half of the 2011-12 season, all starting their maiden voyages in pro hockey. Johnson said he went through a rough patch while Panik and Palat spent some nights watching from the press box with the Norfolk Admirals, the Lightning’s American Hockey League affiliate at the time.

“We put them together and then pulled them apart,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “But it just seemed they weren’t as good when they were apart.”

Soon after, the Admirals won a record 28-straight games and a Calder Cup. Following another productive season in the minors with the Syracuse Crunch and a taste of the NHL with the Bolts in 2012-13, Cooper has tabbed the threesome to start this season for the Lightning.

Johnson is a speedy, undrafted free-agent center from Spokane, Washington. Panik, a second-round draft pick in 2009 from Slovakia, uses his physical frame well and owns a big shot, while the versatile Palat, from the Czech Republic, was selected in the seventh round two years ago.

“Each guy brings something different,” Palat said. “When you put it together, it works.”

Panik and Palat are only 22-years-old and Johnson is the grey beard of the trio at 23. Johnson was named the AHL’s MVP last season, Palat keyed Syracuse’s playoff run and Panik played 25 games in the NHL while his linemates each suited up for the Lightning 14 times.

Cooper said the trio plays at such a high pace it can put defensemen on their heels and each has the skill to take advantage of opportunities.

“We get along very well off the ice and have a good chemistry on it,” Johnson said. “I just think our games mold together and we benefit from each other’s skills.”

Panik scored five goals with the Lightning last season. His first was a highlight-reel game-winner against Carolina when he flipped the puck in the air from one side of the net to the other before beating everyone to slide it into the back of the cage.

It took a while for Panik to get rolling his first pro season, but he finished with 41 points in 64 games, and put up 22 goals and 41 points in 51 contests at Syracuse a year ago. The 6-foot-1, 208-pound right wing also plays with an edge, always looking to finish his checks.

“The things he can do with the puck are amazing and he has such a heavy shot,” Johnson said. “He’s one of the best players I’ve ever played with.”

Palat was the 208th selection in 2011 after being passed over in two drafts and recording 96 points in 61 games for Drummondville of the Quebec Major Junior League. A year and a half later, Palat posted a plus/minus rating of plus-5 in his stint with the Lightning.

Although Palat has climbed up the prospect rankings with his solid defensive play and what Cooper calls the “unsung hero” of the line, he had a big postseason last spring. The 6-foot, 180-pound left wing had seven goals and 26 points in 18 playoff games for the Crunch with a plus-11 rating.

“He just works hard,” Johnson said of Palat. “He’s one of those guys who is going to give you 110-percent every night and I think that’s huge.”

“Ondrej backchecks so well, and he wins battles for pucks,” Panik said.

Johnson said he is beginning to understand a little of what his two Eastern European linemates are talking about when they are not speaking English.

“I at least know when they’re mad at me,” Johnson said, laughing. “So that’s always good.”

There is no language barrier on the ice for the threesome that was dubbed the “Top Gun Line” in Syracuse.

“It’s so much fun to play with those two guys,” Johnson said. “They are both so creative in the way they play.”

Johnson was signed by the Lightning after he scored 53 goals and 115 points in 71 games for Spokane of the Western Hockey League in 2010-11. Even after a slow start, Johnson compiled 31 goals and 68 points in 75 games his first season and upgraded that to 37 and 65 in 62 contests during his award-winning campaign last year.

The 5-foot-9, 182-pound pivot boasts 35 points in 32 career playoff games with a plus-20 rating the last two seasons. Johnson, who played for the United States at the 2009-10 World Junior Championships, had six points in his first five NHL games.

“He’s got a lot of speed and a really good shot,” Panik said of Johnson. “He helps a lot in the defensive zone.”

Both said Johnson’s communication on the ice is important.

“It’s really easy to play with him,” Palat said.

Cooper said each of the young players on the Lightning roster must go through the “NHL adjustment.” The fact that each player on the line got to witness the difference at the highest level of hockey a year ago will help them going forward.

Palat said it is about gaining confidence and Panik learned last season that you have to focus on every shift against bigger, stronger, faster players. Johnson, who won 59.5-percent of his faceoffs in the NHL, said the trio has worked hard on the defensive zone since Norfolk and are ready for the challenge.

“As long as we can take care of our own zone,” Johnson said, “everything else will take care of itself.”

Panik said one of the things that made the line successful is paying attention to the smallest of details.

It is time for them to transfer that, and their success, to the NHL stage.

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