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Tyler Johnson plays big for Lightning

Lightning center Tyler Johnson celebrates after the shot he deflected beats Marc-Andre Fleury to end Sunday’s Game 5.
Lightning center Tyler Johnson celebrates after the shot he deflected beats Marc-Andre Fleury to end Sunday’s Game 5.
Published May 24, 2016

TAMPA — Tyler Johnson's visit to the dentist Saturday was no doubt painful, with his mouth a mess after he took a puck off his face during warmups the night before.

But Johnson, 25, made it sound like a trip to the grocery store.

"Just got some stitches and some teeth," Johnson said.

Johnson showed some guts in Sunday's Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final against the Penguins. Wearing just a half face shield — the full masks weren't comfortable — Johnson darted in front of the net in overtime to set a screen as defenseman Jason Garrison was ready to shoot. Garrison's wrist shot bounced off Johnson's backside and in for the winner in a 4-3 victory, the Lightning center's second straight winning goal. At 53 seconds in, it was the fastest overtime goal in franchise history.

"It just nicked me," Johnson said.

Johnson's winning goal in Game 4, after he got struck by a deflected Jonathan Drouin shot in warmups, banked in off his leg. One day, Johnson will score with his stick again. Either way, the fact Johnson threw his 5-foot-8, 185-pound frame back into danger was no surprise to Dean Blais, who coached him for Team USA at the World Juniors in 2010.

"He's got a heart the size of a lion," Blais said Monday by phone. "To win the Stanley Cup, you've got to have a lot of ice bags, and Tyler is going to have a lot of ice bags."

While wing Nikita Kucherov has grabbed the headlines as the Lightning's "Mr. Clutch," leading the NHL playoffs with 11 goals, Johnson is quietly having another productive postseason. Johnson, who had 13 goals in a Conn Smythe Trophy-caliber performance last postseason, has seven goals so far (and 17 points), helping to bring Tampa Bay one win from the Stanley Cup final heading into tonight's Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final. The Lightning leads the best-of-seven series 3-2, Johnson riding a playoff career-high three game goal streak.

"He's a winner — that's what winners do," coach Jon Cooper said of Johnson, who led Cooper's American Hockey League Norfolk team to the Calder Cup title in 2012. "They don't back down. And when there's a challenge ahead of you, you've got to find a way to meet the challenge. There's a lot of coaches that had a front row seat to see how this kid plays and how he competes. And it's not always the size of the player, it's the size of the heart, and that's Tyler Johnson."

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When Blais first saw Johnson at World Juniors in 2010, he had his doubts about the undersized center from Spokane, Wash.

"I'm like, 'Are you kidding?' " Blais said. "This kid doesn't have a chance."

Blais wasn't the only one, yet the tale of Johnson's remarkable rise has been retold often the past two seasons. Johnson was cut by a USHL team, then went undrafted in the NHL, many telling him he was too small to make it big.

But Blais said Johnson was a big part of the gold-medal winning U.S. team, helping shutdown Canadian stars Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle in the championship. Johnson had filled a similar role for his junior team, the Spokane Chiefs (WHL) two years earlier, the 11th-round pick earning playoff MVP honors for the Memorial Cup-winning squad.

Blais, now coach at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, tells his players to watch Johnson play, calling him an inspiration. Blais said Johnson is a complete player, with speed, skill and courage, his grit making him special.

"There's a lot of good hockey players," Blais said. "There's only one Tyler Johnson."

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It's hard not to wonder if the Lightning would have hoisted the Stanley Cup in June had Johnson not broken his right wrist in Game 1 against the Blackhawks in the final.

That wrist injury lingered into this season, with a banged-up Johnson tallying just 14 goals and 38 points in 69 games.

But a relatively healthy Johnson (dental work aside) is a Lightning catalyst again. The team is 12-1 when he scores a playoff goal the past two years and is five wins from the Cup.

"It wouldn't surprise me if Tampa Bay does it," Blais said. "If everyone plays like Tyler, they've got a good shot at it."

Contact Joe Smith at joesmith@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.