WASHINGTON — In crunch time Wednesday, the Lightning and Kings in a 3-on-3 overtime period, Tampa Bay wing J.T. Brown got as many shifts as All-Star center Tyler Johnson.
"He's earned it," coach Jon Cooper said.
Ice time is a coach's biggest currency, his highest compliment. And Brown, 25, has received six minutes more per game in the past four, jumping from an average of 9 minutes, 46 seconds in the first 19 games to 15:45. That's because Brown is playing arguably the best hockey — or at least the most well-rounded — of his pro career.
With the Lightning shorthanded because of injuries, needing grit and goals, Brown has been equal part pest and playmaker, sparking a three-game winning streak heading into tonight's game against the Capitals.
"At the highest-pressure-packed times of our season, J.T. Brown has played the best," Cooper said. "For back-to-back playoff years, J.T. Brown has been one of our best players, going back to the Montreal series two years ago, and last year's run. And now that we've been (on) a little bit of a roller-coaster at the beginning of the season, J.T. Brown has emerged as one of our most consistent players. That says a lot about the kid."
The last time Brown played this much was in last season's Stanley Cup final, when he, Cedric Paquette and Ryan Callahan were entrusted with shutting down Blackhawks stars Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Brown insists he has not changed much in his preparation or style. But you can't help but notice a rise in confidence.
Brown has four assists in the past six games, including a beautiful setup on Valtteri Filppula's shorthanded winner Nov. 19 against the Rangers. He has been more aggressive offensively, tallying a team-high six shots Wednesday and five Nov. 16 versus Florida, with two goals and five assists for the season.
"Things have been going my way maybe more so than the past," Brown said. "I'm going to keep riding that out."
With the Lightning without injured agitator Paquette, Brown has fearlessly gotten under opponents' skin. Brown, at 5 feet 10 and 175 pounds, has always had a physical element to his game, taking it from his father, Ted, a former N.C. State and Minnesota Vikings running back. But Brown also has been a strong scorer, racking up 24 goals for national champion Minnesota-Duluth in his senior season, 2011-12, earning most outstanding player honors at the Frozen Four.
However, to reach the NHL and stick there, Brown, like many other players, has had to adapt his game to a bottom-six role, knowing that checking and defending will get him in the lineup.
"If you're going to reach this level, you've had to have scored somewhere," Cooper said. "You don't reach this level being, 'Oh, this kid in mites was a defensive checking forward and he carried that all the way up.' You have to have another part of your game. It's the NHL, where guys have to reinvent themselves, and J.T. has done just that."
Said Brown: "Everybody wants to score those goals and be able to score 30 goals. But at the end of the day, not everybody can do that. Everyone has to have a certain role on the team, and I found one that's worked so far."
The goals have been elusive for Brown, who had just seven in his first 120 NHL games. He seemed snakebitten, whether it was missing the net on an odd-man rush or getting robbed by a goaltender.
"It's weird how scorers feel," Brown said. "If you're feeling good, you're going to make that shot, you're going to make that pass. When things aren't going your way, you clench your stick a little too much, things slowly but surely start bouncing over your stick. For me, it's trying to stay level."
Being married now likely helps keep him on an even keel. Brown met his wife, Lexi LaFleur, on Twitter while playing in AHL Syracuse, the two turning a fan-player connection into a small courthouse ceremony in February. The couple plans to have a bigger wedding in the summer, he hopes after another long playoff run.
Knowing Brown, he'd be a big part of that run.
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.