TAMPA — Right from the faceoff, Lightning forward Ondrej Palat battled for possession of the puck for the first half-minute of the third period of Thursday’s game against the Senators.
He fought off players in the corners, once falling into the boards before getting back up and forcing a turnover in the offensive zone. Ottawa was caught off guard, leaving a wide-open Ross Colton at the top of the left circle.
Palat passed to Colton, who got off a shot on goal. But the work Palat did to set up the chance would go unnoticed on the scoresheet.
It’s that kind of play that makes Palat invaluable to the Lightning, now more than ever. With Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point out, Palat is the only remaining piece of a top line that isn’t expected to be back at full strength until after the holiday break.
Palat’s nine goals and nine assists don’t stand out on the star-studded Lightning roster. But it’s often his quiet work that makes the difference between wins and losses.
It’s one of the things veteran forward Pierre-Edouard Bellemare first noticed about Palat after he joined the team in the offseason.
“(He’s) calm,” Bellemare said. “It’s kind of a weird word, but in a way, like in everything that he does, it’s calm. When he has the puck, everything that he does is clean that makes the play calm itself a bit. He’s not over-skating. ... He gets to the point, he gets there on time, and gets the chance to help the team.”
Captain Steven Stamkos and coach Jon Cooper have appreciated the consistency in Palat’s game since the 30-year-old made his NHL debut in 2012-13.
“You know what you’re going to get every night,” Stamkos said, “and that’s someone who’s going to work extremely hard, who’s going into those tough areas, whether it’s the corners or in front of the net and just win puck battles and give our lineup a chance to have some sustained pressure.”
Though Palat doesn’t attract attention, he’s often a key contributor to any offensive sequence.
“He doesn’t get enough credit for his offensive ability,” Stamkos continued. “He can make some really, really nice plays, and he’s just a guy that at the end of the day you want on your team and you want on your line because he does the little things”
Palat’s 18 points — including four game-winning goals — in 29 games this season are fourth on the Lightning, behind Stamkos (34), Victor Hedman (30) and Alex Killorn (24). He is on pace for another 40-point season, but he won’t let that distract him from the task at hand: making the right decisions on the ice and contributing when he can, like when he scored the winning goal in a 3-2 victory over the Canadiens on Dec. 7.
“I think I always play the same way,” Palat said after that game. “Sometimes there’s a game where I don’t score a goal and I think I’m playing (good), so I don’t judge my game on if I score a goal.”
His coach doesn’t, either.
“When everybody wants to play with you, you know you’re doing something right,” Cooper said after the same game. “He’s the line driver, the guy that does all that gritty work. And then he’s got the skill to distribute pucks that players can put in the net. ... He’s as well-rounded of a player that you’ll probably find.”
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