Thursday, May 24, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Palat helps spark Lightning's turnaround

TAMPA — There are many reasons for the Lightning's recent resurgence, which includes a season-high five straight wins heading into tonight's game at Amalie Arena against the Oilers.

There have been more consistent effort and stronger starts, with Tampa Bay putting 60-minute games together.

The goaltending continues to be stellar with Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Defensemen have been extremely active and productive, giving a boost in scoring.

But the key factor has been health. The Lightning (24-17-4) has its full lineup together for the first time in two months. And no addition has been bigger than wing Ondrej Palat, often considered the straw that stirs the Lightning's drink.

It's no coincidence Tampa Bay is 6-1 since Palat returned from a left ankle injury Jan. 2. The Lightning is 14-7-4 with Palat, 10-10 without.

"There's no secret he's a huge part of our team," coach Jon Cooper said. "He's a complete player who plays the whole 200 feet. He can play anywhere in the lineup. He's one of those guys you don't read about in the newspapers every single night, but he's probably the reason the guys are in the newspapers — that unsung hero type.

"As a coach, you wish you could have more Palats. But when you do get them, you're glad you have them. And when they're out of the lineup, you don't realize how much you miss them. That's what he is to us."

Palat has missed 20 games this season, 12 after first hurting his left ankle Nov. 7 in Minnesota and eight more after re-aggravating the injury in his second game back. The Lightning had a hard time replacing Palat, and his absence was compounded by the fact that former Triplets linemate Tyler Johnson missed 13 games with two injuries.

"(Palat) is a guy that's essential to any winning formula you have on a team," captain Steven Stamkos said. "So we missed him for sure. Whatever line he's on, he's bringing that, game in and game out."

Defenseman Victor Hedman said: "He's one of the best two-way players in the league."

After months of constantly shuffling lines, some consistency and balance has returned up front with Palat and Johnson. Palat, the engine of the Triplets line last season, has helped spark the top line with Stamkos and Vladisdlav Namestnikov, who is the team's most improved player. Palat has three goals and eight assists in 25 games.

"It's pretty hard to look past (Palat) and say he's not the guy that starts the engine on that line," Cooper said.

Johnson's return made Tampa Bay stronger up the middle, centering a line with Alex Killorn and Nikita Kucherov, whose 18 goals are second to only Stamkos' 20.

"If you're going to count five to 10 guys in this league you want the puck on their stick right around the net, I'd be hard pressed not to put those two guys on that list," Cooper said of Stamkos and Kucherov. "It gives you a little bit of a one-two punch when you can roll two lines out there that have one of them on each."

Johnson also appears to be finding his game, with a season-high seven shots in Sunday's 3-1 win over Florida. He said the consistency and familiarity with the lines have created confidence and let them play their game.

"It's kind of a fresh start in a way because I really haven't been part of the season," Johnson said. "Now I'm trying to put things together. There's still areas I want to get better at in the game. But I'm feeling better now than I have anytime."

Johnson credits Palat, often an alternate captain, for raising their level of play.

"He gets you motivated; he gets you excited by the way he plays," Johnson said. "He's not necessarily the most vocal guy, but he doesn't have to be. Just the way he plays. You watch his effort level. I think that says more than anything."

Contact Joe Smith at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.

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