Lightning's Kid Line grows into responsibility

Tyler Johnson (9) celebrates his empty-net goal along with Ondrej Palat (18) near the end of the Lightning's 4-2 win over the Flyers last week.
Tyler Johnson (9) celebrates his empty-net goal along with Ondrej Palat (18) near the end of the Lightning's 4-2 win over the Flyers last week.
Published Dec. 1, 2013

BRANDON — Lightning coach Jon Cooper did not tell his Kid Line before Friday's game with the Penguins that its assignment would be to shadow Sidney Crosby's line.

So when Cooper sent center Tyler Johnson and wings Ondrej Palat and Richard Panik out against Crosby for the opening faceoff and told them to make sure they were on the ice every time he was, it took a moment to calm down.

"At the beginning, we felt a little nervous," Panik said. "He's the best player in the world. You have to be aware of him."

This would be a master class for the rookies who had played all of 74 NHL games among them and had never been given so much responsibility.

But it also was a significant vote of confidence from Cooper, who was not only rewarding the line for being, as he said, Tampa Bay's most consistent of late but presenting "a little bit of a test for them, for sure."

Statistically, Crosby's line —with wings Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis, with a sprinkling of Evgeni Malkin — won the battle in Pittsburgh's 3-0 victory at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

Kunitz scored the first-period winner after Panik stopped backchecking because he believed Crosby was about to shoot. Instead, Crosby passed cross-ice to an open Kunitz.

Crosby, the NHL's points leader, also had three assists. But one came on the power play and one on Kunitz's empty-net goal. Five-on-five, the lines played fairly evenly. Johnson even won 8 of 12 faceoffs against Crosby.

"For the most part, they passed the test," Cooper said Saturday at the Ice Sports Forum. "They gave up the winning goal, but it was a good barometer to show these guys are going to be able to handle assignments like that. It also shows they're not quite there yet."

The Kid Line has been one of Lightning's best stories.

Together at AHL Norfolk and Syracuse, Johnson, Palat and Panik won jobs out of training camp and have played almost every game together this season.

"You know what you're getting from them every night," Cooper said. 'They're a bit more sure of themselves and their abilities. Early on, it's human nature, you're nervous, you're uptight, you don't want to make mistakes. Now … they play the game to make plays."

They skate fast, have skill and understand their defensive responsibilities, though a few more goals would be welcome.

Johnson has six goals and 13 points, but has failed on several breakaway chances. Palat has four goals but just one in his past 16 games. Panik has nine assists but one goal, and Friday, alone in the slot with one second left in the second period and Tampa Bay down 1-0, he couldn't beat Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.

"I have to shoot more," said Panik, who has just 27 shots in 25 games. "We all have to put the puck to the net more."

But they also need "the mentality of being able to beat a guy one-on-one or being able to make a play … rather than just dumping the puck in and being on the safe side," Johnson said.

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That comes with experience, something the Kid Line gained against Crosby and the Penguins.

"When you play against players like that, you have to really focus on your game," Johnson said. "You have to focus on doing the right things. You realize you have one mental breakdown and they scored on it. You have to limit those as much as possible."

"It was," Palat said, "an awesome experience."

MEDICAL MATTERS: Forward Tom Pyatt (collarbone), who had hoped to be cleared by Tuesday, will be out at least two more weeks, Cooper said. … Defenseman Radko Gudas (upper body) and left wing Pierre-Cedric Labrie (arm/elbow) did not practice. … Left wing Ryan Malone (foot/ankle) likely will be out two weeks, Cooper said.