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Ondrej Palat, steady as ever, lifts Lightning to Game 3 win vs. Bruins

BOSTON — Some nights, he just might be the best player the Tampa Bay Lightning has.

No, he doesn't score as often as Nikita Kucherov. No, he's not as famous or popular as Steven Stamkos. No, he doesn't get near the attention as goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.

But make no mistake. Ondrej Palat is a big reason why the Lightning is where it is right now.

And where is it? Halfway to reaching the Eastern Conference final after going into its personal house of horrors and beating the Bruins, 4-1, Wednesday night to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.

"A beast," is how his coach, Jon Cooper, describes Palat.

Palat? It's hard to get him to say much of anything about his own play. That's just how he is. You just have to watch him.

You rarely have to look very hard.

The 27-year-old Czech forward has been a major factor in the team's success over the past few seasons. And his fingerprints were all over Game 3. He scored a pair of goals in the first 3:41 to spark the Lightning victory that has given Tampa Bay back home-ice advantage.

While certainly this series remains far from over, the Lightning has pretty much erased any of the ominous doubts one might have had after Boston's dominating Game 1 victory.

For two games now, the Lightning has been the better team and Palat is the epitome of that. In fact, if you're trying to explain to someone how the Lightning plays when it is playing well, just tell them about Palat.

He doesn't get rattled ever. He plays well in his own zone. He makes solid hits. He takes hits to make plays. He scores timely goals.

That, in a nutshell, is what the Lightning has done the past two games. No one does it better than Palat.

"You know those guys that kind of go under the radar and don't get the credit that they deserve," Cooper said, "because they never seek it? And they don't care? That's Ondrej Palat."

Palat got the Lightning off to a start that it couldn't have scripted any better. Two quick goals, both from Palat. The first was just 1:47 into the game when he tapped in a puck after a pretty feed by linemate Tyler Johnson, who is putting together another clutch postseason.

The next Palat goal, his fourth of the postseason, came on a deflection of a Victor Hedman shot. And while the Bruins would cut the lead in half, the Lightning responded with another first-period goal and that pretty much sucked the air out of TD Garden. That's just what the Lightning needed playing in a joint that has never been very kind to it. Just nine wins in 54 all-time games.

Make it 10 now.

Thanks to a total team effort that put the Bruins into a sleeper hold for the final two periods, you almost forgot about Palat's contribution. But that's kind of the way it always is with Palat.

Often you don't notice him until he's not there. The Lightning found that out the hard way when Palat missed two months this season with an ankle injury. Because of it, he had career lows in goals (11) and assists (24) in only 56 games.

But he's back when he is needed most.

"I'm just happy to score again and be a part of it," Palat said.

And while the Lightning plugged along without him, everyone inside the organization will tell you just how valuable he is to the team.

Just like the 2015 Cup run when Palat was part of the best line in hockey called the Triplets, along with Johnson and Nikita Kucherov, his line is again leading the way. This time it's with Johnson and Brayden Point.

The trio shut down New Jersey's Taylor Hall in the first round of the playoffs, and has outplayed Boston's monster line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak in the past two games after being scorched for three goals and eight assists in the Game 1 loss.

"Our job is to not give up goals," Palat said. "If we don't give up goals and we don't score, we're okay with that. But we want to play in their zone. And if we score goals? Yeah, that's good, too."

So, yeah, Wednesday was a good one, too. Because of that, the Lightning now has a leg up in the series with Game 4 set for Friday night in Boston.

Suddenly that game is not as critical. Even a loss sends the Lightning back home with the series tied and home-ice advantage. And a victory Friday puts Tampa Bay in command.

Either way, Palat will be there. He usually is when it matters.

Contact Tom Jones at tjones@tampabay.com. Follow @tomwjones.

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