TAMPA — It’s been easy to overlook Ondrej Palat. With the talent on the Lightning roster, the Lightning left wing is often overshadowed by the players who share a line with him, and frankly, that’s the way he likes it.
Even after shining on hockey’s biggest stage last year — scoring 11 goals, including three game-winners during Tampa Bay’s postseason run to the Stanley Cup — Palat’s performance was obscured by linemates Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point.
But nearly a third of the way into the Lightning’s Cup defense season, it’s become hard to ignore Palat. He entered Thursday’s game in Chicago second on the team in goals with nine, including six on the power play, tied for third-most in the NHL.
Three weeks shy of his 30th birthday, Palat is on pace to easily set a career high in goals during a shortened 56-game regular season.
For the second straight game, Palat on Tuesday scored the Lightning’s first goal — something he’s done six times this season — both times on the power play. He has four game-winning goals this season for Tampa Bay (15-4-1 entering Thursday’s game).
Palat’s success isn’t surprising to head coach Jon Cooper, whose time with Palat dates back to his minor league days in AHL Syracuse and Norfolk. Palat has always been good at doing the little things right, winning his 50/50 puck battles, knowing where to position himself, being aware of where his teammates are and playing hard-nosed, fundamental hockey.
Since his time as a member of the Lightning’s “Triplets” line, when he played alongside Kucherov and Tyler Johnson, Palat has found ways to set up dynamic players. He did the same last season playing with Kucherov and Point. He’s always been the engine, the glue that helps star players make big plays.
“For as long as I’ve had him in the minors from all the way till now, he has that ability to play with good players,” Cooper said. “He can play anywhere up and down the lineup, but he just doesn’t cheat, he doesn’t cheat the game. He will go get the puck for players that can do some magical things with it.”
“He’s played on big lines, and and he’s almost (the) glue (guy) to the line without getting a ton of the credit,” Cooper added. “And to be expected, he’s playing with fabulous players, but somebody’s got to play with them, and he’s done a good job.”
Cooper said a turning point for Palat came two summers ago, when he was coming off an injury-plagued season that saw him score a career-low eight goals. The coaching staff told him in his exit interview that he needed to step up his game. Specifically, he needed to get a step faster.
“Forget the skill stuff, forget the stick stuff,” Cooper said he told Palat. “And he changed the way he trains, and he came back and he gained a step. His mental approach to the game and his game-manship and how he never cheats the game, that’ll never go away. He just needed that step. And now that he’s got it, he’s putting himself in positions to score more.”
Meantime, the Lightning put him in a prime position on the power play.
Four of Palat’s past five goals have come in man-advantage situations after the Lightning shuffled their first unit. Palat moved from the slot postion to the right circle, and Point slid into the slot, where he’s done most of his damage on the power play.
But Palat has been the biggest beneficiary — at least on the scoresheet — as the Lightning searched for ways to replace Kucherov and his playmaking abilities from the right circle spot. Kucherov is out for the entire regular season as he recovers from hip surgery.
Lightning assistant Jeff Halpern, who coaches the power play, said having Palat’s left-handed shot from the right circle is valuable and consistent with the success the Lightning saw there in the past with Kucherov.
“I think that’s opened us up,” Halpern said. “It’s not to say that it’s set in stone who’s in what spot or what hand you need there. But I think when we did make that change, we scored a bunch of goals.”
With Steven Stamkos possessing one of the league’s best one-timers from the left circle, Point able to cause havoc in the slot and defenseman Victor Hedman always dangerous at the point, there’s seldom enough attention given to Palat.
That was the case Tuesday against Dallas, when Stamkos drew the Stars’ attention on the left side and passed to Hedman above the circles. Hedman faked a shot and tapped the puck to Palat, who had a wide-open shot from the right side that he buried for the game’s first and only goal until the game’s final minute.
“It’s a new spot for me,” Palat said. “I’m just trying to learn every day in practice. I’m just trying to, you know, do the right play. When it’s time to shoot, shoot. When it’s time to pass, pass. So I’m just trying to do that, and hopefully I can help the PP to produce.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.
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