ESTERO — In a harmless, good-natured kind of way, Ondrej Palat and Richard Panik used to get a kick out of ganging up on Tyler Johnson.
Palat is from the Czech Republic, Panik from neighboring Slovakia, so it was hilarious, Palat said, for them to "chirp (Johnson) a little bit and he doesn't understand what we're saying."
But after playing on the same line for a year and a half and hanging out on the road, Johnson has caught on.
"I know a few of the bad words in Czech when they're mad it me," the American said, "and I'm starting to get to a point I kind of understand what they're talking about."
There are no such communication issues on the ice, though, and after big seasons for AHL Norfolk and Syracuse, the line is on the verge of claiming three Lightning roster spots for itself.
The last audition is tonight's preseason finale against the Panthers in Sunrise. "It's huge," Johnson said after Friday's practice at Germain Arena. "That's the game that will be fresh in their minds when they do the decision-making."
"We're just going to try to do the same thing, play our game, play with energy," Panik said. "Hopefully, after the game, we stay here."
It is quite a story, really, that an AHL line can come into an NHL training camp and as a unit claim precious roster spots. But after a combined five goals and nine points in three games, the line cannot be ignored.
In Thursday's 3-2 overtime victory over the Panthers, Johnson had a goal and assisted on Nikita Kucherov's winner. Palat assisted on Johnson's goal and shook the boards with a hit on Florida defenseman Mike Weaver. Panik scored shorthanded to finish a two-on-one with Marty St. Louis.
"There is one thing to be said about chemistry, and those guys have it," coach Jon Cooper said. "They gave us a huge boost (Thursday). Johnson was outstanding, Palat continues to make plays, and Panik was a horse. They did a great job."
Cooper put the line together in January 2012, when he was the coach at Norfolk, perhaps not coincidentally right before the team won 28 straight games to end the regular season and went on to win the AHL's Calder Cup.
At Syracuse last season, Johnson was the AHL MVP with a league-best 37 goals. Panik had 22 goals, Palat 13 goals and 52 points.
Each brings something different to the line. Johnson, 23, from Spokane, Wash., is the pace-setter with a nose for the net. Palat, 22, grinds in the corners and against the walls, is physical and has a defensive sensibility. Panik, 22, "can do wonders with the puck," Johnson said. "Just amazing the moves he can do out of the blue."
Playing so long together, including some last season as Tampa Bay callups, they also have developed a bit of an on-ice sixth sense.
"We're very familiar with each other and know where the other likes to play," Johnson said. "There aren't too many times on the ice when we don't know where someone is."
"Those guys are ready," teammate Steven Stamkos said. "You just hope they keep going with this opportunity they're getting."
That said, no one is getting ahead of himself.
"We have one more game before the final cut," Palat said. "We have to play good."
NOTES: Left wing Jonathan Drouin, drafted No. 3 overall in June, played his best preseason game Thursday. As for making the team out of camp, it's too close to call. "It's much more gratifying to see him improving every game than getting worse," Cooper said. "That's a good sign." … Ryan Malone (upper body) practiced. The left wing will not play tonight, though Cooper said he should be ready for the season opener Thursday at Boston. … Anders Lindback was scheduled to start tonight in net.