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'Triplets' line is Lightning's hottest

Tyler Johnson, left, centers the team’s second line, with Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov his wings. “They all seem to be on the same wavelength,” coach Jon Cooper says.
Tyler Johnson, left, centers the team’s second line, with Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov his wings. “They all seem to be on the same wavelength,” coach Jon Cooper says.
Published Nov. 3, 2014

TAMPA —- When Tyler Johnson was reunited on a line with Ondrej Palat two weeks ago, there was instant chemistry.

Johnson, 24, and Palat, 23, Calder Trophy (top rookie) finalists last year, are good friends and have played together for parts of three years dating to their days with AHL Syracuse.

Then, Nikita Kucherov, a skilled 21-year-old Russian wing, joined them Oct. 24 in Winnipeg due to injuries to Brett Connolly, Alex Killorn and Ryan Callahan.

" 'Kuch' just steps in and it feels like another three years with him," Johnson said.

Put together as a necessity, the trio has become the team's hottest combination, the second line giving the Lightning the secondary scoring it needs to be a contender.

Johnson entered Sunday tied for the league lead with 13 assists and with a team-high 14 points. Three of Palat's four goals have come since joining Johnson. Kucherov has five goals and four assists in his five games with Johnson and Palat.

"They sort of have that perfect mix of speed and skill," coach Jon Cooper said. "And it's weird because they all seem to be on the same wavelength; it's like they're triplets. It seems those three guys are almost thinking for each other, and it's pretty sweet to watch.''

That connection was evident in the Lightning's second goal in Saturday's 4-3 win over the Capitals. Johnson used his trademark speed to carry the puck deep into the Washington zone and dropped a back pass off the boards behind the net to Kucherov, who found Palat at the right post for an easy score.

"They seem to be finding each other pretty good there, some pretty passes," Callahan said. "I think that's the thing about our team, we've got all different lines and all different individuals, and that's what makes us dangerous."

Captain Steven Stamkos will always be the focus of opposing teams, and he has eight goals. But seven other Lightning forwards have multiple goals, including third- and fourth-line centers Vladislav Namestnikov and Brian Boyle with three each. Touted wing prospect Jonathan Drouin has played fourth-line minutes.

"I've been impressed with the Lightning balance," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "For a (team) that has Stamkos, their balance is pretty good. (They) get contributions right up and down the lines."

Considering the Lightning's injuries — it has finished five of its 12 games a player short — lines have been shuffled constantly. On Saturday, Killorn played just six minutes before leaving with an upper-body injury.

The depth has carried Tampa Bay, but the team hasn't played consistently. As Stamkos said, "I truly believe we have more to offer. … Hopefully it just gets better from here."

One stable thing has been the second line, which hopes to grow together.

"As long as we keep working hard, as long as we keep doing the right things, keep playing the game the right way," Johnson says, "I don't know why we would stop."

Contact Joe Smith at joesmith@tampabay.com.