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'Triplets' a perfect combination for Lightning

by Dan Rosen

TAMPA -- The three players on the Tampa Bay Lightning's delightfully skilled and fantastically young and energetic second line are known as "The Triplets." The nickname works because it's quick, to the point, memorable and easy to digest. It's all good except for one great problem to have:

Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov are nothing alike. But in an odd way that's what fuels their chemistry, what makes them so good and so awesome to watch. They've been that way all season and, most impressively and importantly, throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Nothing changed Wednesday at Amalie Arena, when "The Triplets" combined for four goals, including Kucherov's overtime winner, and three assists in the Lightning's 6-5 victory against the New York Rangers in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final.

The Lightning lead the best-of-7 series 2-1 and host Game 4 on Friday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

The threesome has accounted for 25 of Tampa Bay's 47 goals in the playoffs. The Rangers have had no answer for them.

"It's so much fun to play with those two guys," Palat said. "Hopefully we're just going to keep going. We read off each other. I know exactly where [Johnson] and [Kucherov] are going to be on the ice. It's just fun."

They read off each other well largely because they know the other guy isn't going to be doing what they do.

Kucherov, a Russian, and Johnson, an American, are the two highly skilled members of the line, so they feed off of Palat's powerful game. Palat, a Czech, digs out pucks, hits and does all the dirty work so that Johnson and Kucherov have more space to work with.

They don't have to do all of that because Palat does. That's his skillset. That's what makes him unique on the line.

"He's a big grinder," Kucherov said. "He's just like a train on the line."

Palat definitely was in Game 3; to go along with his three points he was credited with two hits and had eight shot attempts, including four on goal.

"He was playing possessed," Johnson said. "He was unbelievable all over the ice."

And just think, Palat was a seventh-round draft pick, the 208th player chosen in the 2011 NHL Draft. Now he's the glue to the best line going in the NHL.

"He's a tough, physical guy," Johnson said. "It's hard to get the puck off of him. He has skill and he can make plays."

Palat was drafted 150 spots after the Lightning selected Kucherov, who is all skill with a shot that will fool you, like it did Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist on his overtime winner.

Whereas most players would have dumped the puck in when faced with an outnumbered situation as Kucherov was, he decided to fire the puck on net.

"Any shot is a good shot," Kucherov said. "I was just trying to hit the net."

Good decision.

"[Kucherov] is one of those guys when you think he literally has nothing he just whips up something," Johnson said.

And that's what makes Kucherov unique.

"He learned how to play defense [last season] and it was huge for him," Palat said. "He's a skilled player, and he will make those plays like that."

Johnson, who was passed over three times in the NHL draft before signing with the Lightning as a free agent, said all he has to do is float around and let Palat and Kucherov find him. He's being humble. He does more than that. A lot more.

Johnson plays a responsible 200-foot game, gets in the battle even though he's only 5-foot-8, and has terrific skill. The combination makes him unique among his linemates.

His hat trick in Game 2 was a thing of beauty: a goal off a 3-on-5 breakaway, a goal off a 4-on-3 power play, and an even-strength goal.

Johnson's goal in Game 3 was off a one-timer from a saucer pass through two sticks by Palat.

"They make my job a lot easier," Johnson said of Palat and Kucherov.

Palat says the same thing about Kucherov and Johnson. Kucherov says the same thing about Johnson and Palat.

They may not look alike, act alike, sound alike or play alike, but they are "The Triplets" because the way they play together makes it look like they've been together forever.

"They've impressed me for a long time," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said, "and now they're impressing the world."


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