Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat grew up a world apart. But the past few years, the 23-year-old Lightning rookies have been nearly inseparable.
Johnson, a Spokane, Wash., native, and Palat, from the Czech Republic, clicked since becoming roommates with Norfolk in the American Hockey League three years ago. They burst onto the scene together last season with the Lightning, shining on the top line.
The two young stars were even rewarded with identical three-year, $10 million deals this offseason. During the season, they were roommates on the road and next door neighbors in Channelside area apartments, a short walk to work.
"I don't think I went to the rink a day without him, and vice versa," Johnson said. "We're very close."
So it's only fitting that Johnson and Palat are joined together tonight in Las Vegas, both finalists for the Calder Trophy as the league's top rookie.
"It's awesome," Palat said. "He's one of my best friends."
Said Johnson: "It makes it more special."
Johnson and Palat were never can't-miss prospects; both had to fight their way into the league.
Johnson, who went undrafted, and Palat, picked in the seventh round in 2011, first met with Norfolk in the 2011-12 season. They played with Slovakian wing Richard Panik.
"The first couple of months it was just me listening to (Palat) and Panik speaking in Czech and Slovak," Johnson said. "And I was trying to decipher if they were talking about me."
"We made it tough on him," Palat said, laughing.
Palat said they started speaking English to bridge the gap. But on the ice, their skills needed no translation. Between Johnson's speed and Palat's scoring touch, they were key cogs for the Admirals Calder Cup championship, led by their coach, Jon Cooper.
"On the ice, it's helped that we're good friends," Palat said. "He's got really good speed and I just try to find him and every time pass to him because he can beat the defense. It's fun to play with him."
The two got their first NHL callups the following season, each appearing in 14 games. Heading into training camp last season, they were unsure what would come next.
"We were just hoping to make the team," Johnson said.
They did a lot more than that.
Johnson and Palat started on the third and fourth lines with the Lightning, but worked their way up, eventually playing with Marty St. Louis after Steven Stamkos broke his tibia in November.
Thrust into a bigger role, their learning curve was accelerated, their confidence spiked.
"I started playing with Marty and he told me, 'Don't be afraid to make the plays,' " Palat said, "so I started to play like I did in the minors. I think confidence for me is the biggest thing. I started to play like I know how. I forgot about the NHL being the best in the world, and told myself, 'I can play in the league.' "
Palat led the Lightning in scoring with 59 points (23 goals, 36 assists). Johnson set a franchise rookie record with 24 goals (to go along with 26 assists), surpassing Stamkos' mark.
"It was a great year, something that obviously you dream about, but it's not something that you really think is going to happen," Johnson said. "Lucky for me, everything was put into place."
In their spare time, Johnson and Palat would hang by the pool or relax, their laid-back personalties meshing well. Palat is the quieter one, though Johnson claims he's a "goofball." They tried fishing once. "He's not much of a fisherman," Johnson quipped. Palat, however, is a good cook (just ask him about his goulash).
The rare disagreements were likely over whether to make the three-minute walk to the Tampa Bay Times Forum or drive.
"He didn't want to walk," Palat said. "He took a car every day."
The two realize they've set the bar high for next season, and are eager to take the next step, still stung by getting swept in the first-round of the playoffs by the Canadiens.
"I think both of us are very competitive and want to have a better chance of winning the Stanley Cup," Johnson said. "And in order to do that we have to play better. It's cool that we're right along with each other. Hopefully, we can continue to do so."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @TBTimes_JSmith.