Monday, September 24, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning off to hell of a start; wins playoff opener

TAMPA — Last year was the first of Tyler Johnson's career that he did not play in a playoff game.

On any level. He hated it.

"I never had a summer like that," Johnson said. "That summer felt like it lasted forever."

The NHL postseason, Johnson said, is the best time of the year, and he  played like it was his birthday and Christmas morning all wrapped into one noisy night at Amalie Arena.

Johnson assisted on the first goal of the game and scored the second as the Lightning beat the Devils 5-2 in Game 1 of the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinals. Game 2 is 3 p.m. Saturday at Amalie.

It was Johnson hooking up with Ondrej Palat, two-thirds of the "Triplets Line" that powered the Lightning to the 2015 Stanley Cup final.

They assisted on each other's goals as the Lightning took a 2-0 lead into the first intermission.

"We're familiar to play together," Palat said. "It's pretty easy to play with him. It was nice we scored those two goals. It was kind of a relief."

RELATED: The NHL playoffs are back. From the looks of Game 1, so is the Lightning

Alex Killorn, another big scorer in past postseasons, made it 4-2 in the third and put a halt to Jersey's comeback bid. Nikita Kucherov, the third Triplet, scored the empty-netter to put the game on ice.

Yanni Gourde, playing his first playoff game, crashed the old guard party when he finally cashed in a scoring chance to score the third goal of the game.

The Lightning held off a run by the Devils, who cut the lead to 3-2 midway through the third. The stand was made easier by the early two-goal cushion provide by Johnson and Palat.

"They find a way," coach Jon Cooper said. "They've done it before."

Johnson and Kucherov are tied for the most playoff goals by an active player in franchise history with 22. Johnson's assist on Palat's goal was his 22nd of the postseason, most among active Lightning players.

"I think the playoffs gets everyone going," Johnson said. "It's a different atmosphere. The crowd's in it just that much more. You're in it that much more. You're playing for a goal you dreamt about since you were a little kid.

"Any time you play in the playoffs it's extra special. I just love it. I love the environment, the competitiveness of every single guy, the emotion out there. It makes it a lot more fun."

That exuberance was on display was on display when Johnson, after scoring, jumped into the glass in the corner just before being mobbed by his linemates.

The third member of the line is Brayden Point, and trio had the task of stopping Jersey's top-scoring line led by Taylor Hall. For the most part they were successful, though a turnover by Palat led to Hall's goal.

Palat was trying to clear the puck from near his own net with a pass to Johnson. Hall intercepted and scored.

"I told (Vasilevskiy) sorry about that on that pass to Hall," Palat said.

RELATED: Yanni Gourde gets goal, assist to help Lightning in his playoff debut

It was the kind of night when they can joke about possible game-changing mistakes, because the game never really changed.

The more experienced Lightning controlled the play early, then controlled it late.

It started when Johnson circled behind the Devils with the puck than passed to Palat, who had found some space in front. From there, Palat easily beat Devils goalie Keith Kinkaid.

"He made a great pickup pass and was able to slide it right in there," Johnson said.

The roles were reversed on the next goal.

"We've played together a lot of games now, so we kind of know where each other is," Johnson said. "We know what we like to do with one another. A lot of those times it's not even thinking, it's kind of just doing. I felt like one those passes we knew where each other were and found those soft areas. It's a lot of fun playing with him."

It was just like old times.

Contact Roger Mooney at [email protected] Follow @rogermooney50.

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