Lightning coach Jon Cooper’s relationship with forward Tyler Johnson runs a decade deep, and despite Johnson having a reduced role and diminished minutes this season, Cooper always has had faith in him in key moments.
So the player most likely to not be with the Lightning when the offseason ended played one of the biggest roles Friday in putting them one win from a second straight Stanley Cup title.
Centering the fourth line, Johnson scored twice in the Lightning’s 6-3 Game 3 win over the Canadiens at the Bell Centre in Montreal.
The Lightning can sweep the series with a Game 4 win Monday in Montreal.
Cooper has said it many times: You need everyone to win a Stanley Cup.
Johnson had just eight goals in 55 regular-season games, but he has four goals in his past 12 playoff games.
It wasn’t that long ago that the Lightning, looking for ways to become salary cap compliant, were looking to move Johnson before the season started in January. Nikita Kucherov’s hip surgery and trades to acquire injured-player contracts allowed the Lightning to become cap friendly through long-term injured reserve, and Johnson stayed.
Then he was put on waivers just before the opener so the Lightning could be cap compliant on opening night. He wasn’t claimed.
With forward Alex Killorn injured for Game 2 of the Cup final, Cooper filled his spot at wing on the second line with Johnson. But going into Game 3, with Killorn still out, Cooper wanted to get Johnson back at center, allowing him to work through the middle of the ice and use his speed. The move paid off.
“(Friday), he had a hell of a game,” Kucherov said. “Two huge goals for us. He’s that type of player that likes to play under pressure.”
Johnson’ first goal, the second of two Tampa Bay goals in the first 3:33 of the second period, gave the Lightning a commanding 4-1 lead.
It came on a precision play from end to end, from defenseman Ryan McDonagh’s pass to forward Pat Maroon to defenseman David Savard in the neutral zone. Savard made a quick touch pass to forward Mathieu Joseph, creating a 2-on-1 rush.
Montreal goalie Carey Price turned away Joseph’s wrister, but the rebound went off Joseph’s skate and toward the slot, where Johnson was charging the net and had an easy backhanded shot.
“It’s playing with good players,” said Johnson, who had a front-row seat to the Lightning’s roller-coaster ride of postseason ups and downs before Tampa Bay lifted the trophy last year.
“Actually, everyone on the ice on the breakout started that whole thing.”
Johnson’s second goal, with 4:41 left in the third, came after he stole the puck in the high slot, then followed his initial wrister, charging the net for a putback.
“Roles change, and you have to adapt, and nobody’s done it better than Tyler,” Cooper said. “I couldn’t be more happy for somebody, and I know that his teammates were for his performance (Friday) and being rewarded for everything he’s gone through. I am extremely happy for the win. I might be a little happier for Tyler Johnson.”
Cooper and Johnson came up together, first with AHL Norfolk, far away from the Stanley Cup spotlight. As a member of the Lightning’s “Triplets” line, teaming with Kucherov and Ondrej Palat, Johnson led all skaters with 13 goals and 26 points in 2015 when the Lightning fell short in the Stanley Cup final against the Blackhawks.
On this year’s playoff team, he entered Game 3 averaging just 10:12 of ice time.
“It’s guys like Tyler Johnson that have really taken our team to a new level,” Cooper said. “And now he may have a little bit of a different role, but he’s still having a positive impact. Good guys get rewarded, and he’s being rewarded.”
Now, the Lightning stand one win from becoming the eighth franchise to win back-to-back Stanley Cups.
“It’s like the first day of school. That whole year (last season) was like that,” Cooper said. “And this year, it almost feels like it’s like the last day of school. We don’t know what our team is going to look like next year and if we’re all going to be together again. There’s some crazy circumstances that had to happen for this team to stay together, and I know these guys understand that … and they’re well aware of what we can cement … if they can somehow get one more win.”
First Period—1, Tampa Bay, Rutta 2 (Hedman, Palat), 1:52. 2, Tampa Bay, Hedman 2 (Cirelli, Kucherov), 3:27 (pp). 3, Montreal, Danault 1 (Weber), 11:16. Penalties—Staal, MTL (Delay of Game), 2:54; Sergachev, TB (Interference), 17:29.
Second Period—4, Tampa Bay, Kucherov 8 (Cernak, Palat), 1:40. 5, Tampa Bay, Johnson 3 (Savard, Joseph), 3:33. 6, Montreal, Suzuki 7 (Caufield, Petry), 18:04. Penalties—None.
Third Period—7, Tampa Bay, Johnson 4, 15:19. 8, Montreal, Perry 4 (Gallagher, Chiarot), 15:58. 9, Tampa Bay, Coleman 3 (Goodrow), 16:48 (en). Penalties—None.
Shots on Goal—Tampa Bay 12-9-9_30. Montreal 17-8-10_35. Power-play opportunities—Tampa Bay 1 of 1; Montreal 0 of 1. Goalies—Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 15-6-0 (35 shots-32 saves). Montreal, Price 12-8-0 (29-24). A—3,500 (21,288). T—2:31. Referees—Francis Charron, Gord Dwyer. Linesmen—Scott Cherrey, Kiel Murchison.
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