NASHVILLE — It was just an exhibition game, in front of a half-empty Bridgestone Arena, but Lightning wing Ondrej Palat had already sensed that special vibe again.
After a brief summer break, the Triplets were back together. And it felt like they had never left.
Palat, 24, Tyler Johnson, 25, and Nikita Kucherov, 22, the dynamic Lightning trio that became the NHL's most dangerous line last season, made their preseason debut against the Predators on Wednesday night.
"I told them, 'I forgot how much fun it was last year,' " Palat said. "A hell of a year."
Magical. Unforgettable. But sustainable? Johnson, Palat and Kucherov were a big reason why the Lightning reached the Stanley Cup final, racking up 31 of the team's 65 playoff goals, creating most of their season-saving moments. Whether Tampa Bay gets another crack at the Cup hinges on several factors, not the least of which this: Can the Triplets repeat the feat?
"We hope so," coach Jon Cooper said, smiling. "We're counting on it."
The last time the hockey world saw the Triplets, which Cooper dubbed the "perfect mix of speed and skill," they were limping out of the playoffs. Johnson, the 5-foot-8 center who transformed from undrafted and unwanted to an All-Star and Conn Smythe candidate, broke his right wrist in Game 1 of the final against the Blackhawks. The league's leading playoff scorer was a shell of himself the rest of the way, unable to shoot effectively or take faceoffs. "The toughest thing I've ever had to play with," Johnson said.
Kucherov, whose 29 regular-season goals were tied with Johnson and second to captain Steven Stamkos, suffered an upper-body injury early in Game 5 crashing into the goalpost. He wasn't the same in Game 6, the Lightning sapped of two of its top scorers in a 4-2 series loss. "There's no do-overs," Cooper said. "Can't sit here and say, I wish they weren't hurt in the playoffs. What happened, happened."
But Johnson is playing with no limitations, ripping one-timers and winning draws. "The kid is back," Cooper said. And Kucherov, freshly married, says he feels lighter, stronger and faster after a summer of speed-driven workouts in Southern California with other NHL players.
Kucherov is one of the league's best bargains ($700,000), due a hefty raise (or long-term deal) when he's a restricted free agent this summer.
"I don't want it to be like one year, you play good, one year you play bad," Kucherov said. "I want to play even better than last year and help the team."
Palat knows opponents will likely key on them, but that's nothing new. The trio was facing opposing team's top defensive pairings and shutdown lines since the second half of last season. Rangers coach Alain Vigneault, whose team had just finished beating combos of Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin and Alexander Ovechkin/Nicklas Backstrom in the playoffs, said the Triplets line was "without a doubt the best we've seen."
"They were getting the top matchups every single night and guys are really leaning on them," center Brian Boyle said of the Triplets. "And you could see how they responded and I thought they did an unbelievable job."
Cooper points out how all three players are young, not the age of decline, with a track record of improving every year. Last season, Kucherov fought to make the team during six exhibitions, which he feels jumpstarted a breakout season. He noted his largest gains were on the defensive end.
Palat, the engine of the Triplets line, plays a 200-foot game, digging out pucks and driving the net. That relentless, competitive style is something that doesn't typically slump, and an attribute all three have.
"It's not like they're one dimensional," said wing Erik Condra, who faced the Triplets last year while with the Senators. "They come back at you hard, steal pucks on the backcheck. That's the toughest part about playing against them. I don't think there's a line like them."
Johnson, who went from Calder Trophy finalist as the league's top rookie to his first All-Star selection last season, feels he has more room to grow.
"I hate the term that people say, 'There's a ceiling.' I don't believe there is," Johnson said. "If I listened to people on ceilings, I probably would have quit when I was 12. It's something if you want it bad enough, if you work hard enough, anything's possible."
For now, the trio is happy to reunite, having done their own thing over the summer, including Kucherov's small June wedding.
"He didn't invite us," Palat quipped. "What kind of Triplet is he?"
Contact Joe Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.