NASHVILLE — One day after posing together in ugly sweaters for the Hockey News cover photo shoot, the Lightning's touted Triplets line was broken up.
Well, to be fair, every Tampa Bay line was shuffled after an admittedly terrible first period of a 2-1 win over the Sabres. And, don't worry, the changes were only temporary.
But the Lightning's Triplets trio of Tyler Johnson, 25, Ondrej Palat, 24, and Nikita Kucherov, 22 — which formed the league's most dynamic, dangerous and dominant line last season — is slumping. Despite a healthy amount of scoring chances, they have zero even-strength goals together through the season's first six games heading into tonight's showdown with the Predators.
Maybe they're just a victim to the spectacular standard they set.
"They've been in the league one year and their line has a name," coach Jon Cooper quipped.
However, randomly thrust together due to injuries in Winnipeg one year ago Saturday, the Triplets are not only gaining fame in the hockey world (hence the upcoming Hockey News cover story), but attention from opposing teams, who are throwing their top defensive pairings and lines at them.
"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little bit frustrated," Johnson said. "But at the same time, am I trying to kill myself at night? No."
Said Palat: "It's not that we thought it was going to be easy, like we're going to score every single game, and we're never going to have a slump or something."
They're getting chances, including 16 combined in Thursday's 5-3 loss to Dallas, to no avail.
"I was (ticked)," Palat said. But nothing is coming easy, opposing teams targeting them in gameplans.
"I would think other teams would be in a bad spot if they didn't," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "Even last year, as the year went on, there was no surprises about the speed and the skill and how they play, that line. They're going to get due attention from every team that plays against them, and they have to. They earned it."
Said Johnson: "Do I think other teams are maybe playing a little bit harder and marking us on their calendars? Absolutely. I would if I was in their shoes."
The three ranked in the NHL's top four in plus-minus last season. Johnson, a first-time All-Star with 29 goals, has four assists this season. Kucherov, who also had 29 goals, has one this season, which came just as a power play expired Oct. 10 in Buffalo. Palat has one goal (power play) and assist and is at minus-1. Johnson leads the Lightning in shots (16), with Palat (12) and Kucherov (11) not far behind.
"I've been hitting posts, Kuch has been hitting posts," Johnson said.
Johnson, who had just one goal in his first 12 games last season, isn't worried about the goals, or points. He's more concerned how they need to be better in other areas, putting themselves in the right spots, on both ends. The trio will watch film together, breaking down their shifts.
"Right now, I can't say we've been giving it our 'A' game," Johnson said.
Johnson, Palat and Kucherov didn't play together a lot in the preseason, which included injuries to Kucherov and Johnson. As magical as their chemistry has been — Cooper comparing them to triplets thinking on the same wavelength, like his twin daughters — it is not as automatic.
"If you look at the way we play, a lot of the stuff we do is timing," Johnson said. "Kind of beating guys one-on-one and passing and that's something you lose during the summer."
Opposing teams are doing everything to disrupt the Triplets' rhythm, from structurally taking away their time and space in the neutral zone to trying to physically frustrate them.
"The only way you slow speed is you hit them," Sabres wing Evander Kane said.
Still, more often than not, Cooper said the Triplets are "carrying the mail" for the Lightning. And they're going to need to on this road trip against four playoff teams, including Saturday's rematch with the Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks.
"We just need to stick with it," Palat said. "We just need one goal and it's going to break and we're going to get it going again."
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.