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Ondrej Palat having 'awesome' rookie season for Lightning

Ondrej Palat uses the word "awesome" a lot.

About playing for the Czech Republic at the Olympics in February: awesome. About being the NHL's rookie of the month for January: awesome.

So when the Lightning's rookie left wing was told teammate Steven Stamkos said he was the kind of linemate anyone would want, Palat's response was, well, "That's awesome."

Actually, that's a pretty good description of what Palat has accomplished this season, turning himself from a nondescript draft pick (208th overall in 2011) into a serious contender for rookie of the year.

"Can't say enough about him," said coach Jon Cooper, who called Palat "a gem."

Said Stamkos: "You see the way he plays, the work ethic he has, the skill set he has, the confidence he's gaining each and every game. He's an unbelievable player. You'd love to play with a guy like that."

The belief is Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon will win the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. But Palat, who turns 23 on Friday and has 10 goals and 27 points in his past 22 games, makes a compelling case for himself.

His 49 points on 19 goals and 30 assists are second in the league among rookies, just five behind MacKinnon. At plus-27, he is second among rookies. He also leads all rookie forwards with 58 blocked shots and 42 takeaways.

Where Palat really separates himself, though, is with an average ice time on the penalty kill of 2:03. MacKinnon does not play that part of the game.

Then there was Palat's dramatic goal Saturday against the Penguins in which he skated from his blue line, deked to his backhand to beat a defender in the offensive zone and to his forehand to score. The goal tied the score with 1:22 left in the third period. The Lightning lost 4-3 in overtime but earned a valuable point for a regulation tie.

"You see the way he plays game-in and game-out. He's a competitor," Stamkos said. "So it's not surprising he's stepping up at this time of the year and making a big play like that."

Asked if he thinks about catching MacKinnon in the points race — he has 11 games left, including tonight against the Senators at the Tampa Bay Times Forum — Palat, 6 feet and 180 pounds, said no.

"I'm not the type of guy looking for personal awards," he said. "I'm looking always for the team. I want to play how I play, play good. That's all I have to do."

The thing about Palat is he always has been overshadowed.

With Drummondville of the junior Quebec league, he played with highly touted Sean Couturier, now with the Flyers. At AHL Norfolk in 2011-12, he played with league MVP Cory Conacher, now with the Sabres. With AHL Syracuse in 2012-13, he played with league MVP Tyler Johnson, now a Lightning teammate and another rookie of the year candidate.

With Stamkos out four months with a broken leg, Palat and Johnson played on a line with Marty St. Louis. Cooper said he wasn't sure who benefited most.

"The thing about Palat, he's one of those guys, when he's on your line, he makes everyone better around him," said Cooper, who coached Palat at Norfolk and Syracuse. "Especially in the absence of 'Stammer,' he's one of the guys who elevated his game not only to a new level, but borderline elite; pretty impressive for a rookie."

Or as Palat would say, pretty awesome.

Brilliant debuts

Most goals by a Lightning rookie, with games played and age at season's start:

Player No. Season Gms. Age

Steven Stamkos 23 2008-09 79 18

Tyler Johnson 22 2013-14 71 23

Brad Richards 21 2000-01 82 20

Ondrej Palat 19 2013-14 71 22

Ondrej Palat having 'awesome' rookie season for Lightning 03/23/14 [Last modified: Sunday, March 23, 2014 10:42pm]
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