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'Triplets' line adds scoring dimension for Lightning

by Arpon Basu

They have been dubbed "The Triplets," and when you see them on the ice, it's easy to understand why.

Tyler Johnson, 5-foot-10, 182 pounds.

Nikita Kucherov, 5-11, 171.

Ondrej Palat, 6-0, 180.

Not only do the three members of one of the top lines in the NHL look alike when skating for the Tampa Bay Lightning, they all share the trait of being dismissed at one time or another in their hockey careers because of their similarly slight frames.

But since Oct. 24, when coach Jon Cooper was practically forced to put them together after losing forwards Brett Connolly and J.T. Brown in the first period of a road game against the Winnipeg Jets, "The Triplets" have been terrorizing the NHL.

Following a six-point performance by the line in a 4-2 win at the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday, a game that gave the Lightning sole possession of first place in the Eastern Conference, Johnson, Kucherov and Palat have combined for 107 points in 35 games since they were first put together.

"That line has just played great," said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, who sits third on the Lightning scoring list behind Johnson and Kucherov. "They have a lot of chemistry. I think [Johnson's] got unbelievable skill and determination and he's a pretty smart player, but I think the guy who flies under the radar a lot is [Kucherov]. He makes some unbelievable plays out there. And obviously [Palat] is the guy that can put the points on the board, but grinds it out, goes to the front of the net and the dirty areas. Those guys know where each other are on the ice.

"It's a nice thing to have and it's a nice thing to watch."

Cooper refuses to take credit for putting the line together because of the circumstances that led to it, but his familiarity with Johnson and Palat from their days together in the American Hockey League allowed him to trust them enough to add Kucherov to the mix.

"I've been with [Johnson] and Palat for four-plus years now, and I've watched their magic work from the American League to up here," Cooper said. "The one thing is that [Kucherov] has kind of been that perfect fit for them. They play the game at an unbelievable pace, they have extremely high hockey I.Q., and they've been sort of dubbed 'The Triplets' because they kind of think alike everywhere on the ice. It's been a pleasure to coach the guys. The one thing you have to have on a line like that is they have to be committed to getting better every day, and that's what the three of those guys have.

"When guys have gone up and down on our team this year, they've been a constant and a big part of the reason we are where we are right now."

Kucherov had a difficult rookie season learning the finer points of playing in the NHL, and he had a rough start to this season. But as soon as he completed "The Triplets," he and his new linemates took off.

"[Kucherov] has everything you would want in offensive talent, but you have to learn to play away from the puck, and we tell our guys that all the time," Cooper said. "When you learn that part of the game, the offensive side will always take care of itself. There's been some tough love with [Kucherov] last year. He was a healthy scratch a couple of games in the playoffs and down the stretch. But all that kid did was take it as motivation. He came back in the summer, he was dominant in the preseason and he started a little bit slow, but when we put all the kids together it really turned everything around.

"What he did was he committed to be a better hockey player without the puck. As soon as he realized that part of your game can translate into offense, this is what you're getting."

Kucherov has 17 goals and 22 assists in 35 games since that night in Winnipeg, introducing his talents to the rest of the hockey world. But he credits his linemates and their well-established history together for helping allow his talent to shine.

"I'm playing with those two guys and they've played together for three or four years. They know each other very well, so I'm just kind of feeding them," Kucherov said. "We just try to keep playing simple, but they actually make my game easier, talking to me, telling me where I should go in the defensive zone, the offensive zone. It helps me a lot."

If last season was Palat's coming out party, with 59 points and a Calder Trophy nomination, then it would be difficult to describe what this offensive explosion means for Johnson.

He is the only one of "The Triplets" who was never drafted, yet Johnson woke up Wednesday sitting third on the NHL scoring list with 45 points in 42 games, behind Jakub Voracek of the Philadelphia Flyers and Tyler Seguin of the Dallas Stars. When Johnson looks behind him on the list, he can see a line of first-round draft picks chasing him. The only other player among the top-16 scorers in the NHL before games Wednesday who was not taken in the first round of the NHL draft is Kucherov, a second-round pick by the Lightning at the 2011 NHL Draft who is 11th on the list.

Tyler Johnson
Center - TBL
GOALS: 17 | ASST: 28 | PTS: 45
SOG: 113 | +/-: 26
Johnson's rise to these heights is an extraordinary tale of overcoming odds and preconceived hockey notions of size being the most important ingredient to success. When Johnson was 17, he was cut by a United States Hockey League team before he made his hometown Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League and won a Memorial Cup with them his rookie year in 2008.

Johnson was an 11th-round draft pick of the Chiefs in the WHL bantam draft, so when his NHL draft year came he had no expectations of hearing his name called. So much so, in fact, he didn't even watch the 2008 draft, in spite of the fact he was a member of the reigning Memorial Cup champions.

"I've kind of always been put down just because of my size, people didn't really think I could play," Johnson said. "I never really thought that I was going to be drafted, and I didn't really care. I was having fun, I was playing hockey, I was doing everything I wanted to do. Playing in the WHL was a dream come true for me, so just doing that was extremely fun in itself.

"I had to go a different route, and it just kind of worked."

It is working out perfectly for the Lightning, sitting on top of the Eastern Conference largely because Johnson, Palat and Kucherov have given them a multifaceted offensive attack. There was a time not long ago where opposing teams knew if they stopped Stamkos, they stopped the Lightning.

Those days are long gone.

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