TAMPA — He has been here forever and seen it all.
Steven Stamkos breaking records, Brayden Point scoring overtime goals, Victor Hedman winning awards and Nikita Kucherov earning praise. The big contracts, moments and headlines have belonged to those guys.
As for Ondrej Palat, he has been content with what he has had. Maybe not as much glory, but a locker room full of respect. Maybe not as many viral videos, but the admiration of a longtime coach.
And maybe that’s why Sunday afternoon felt like justice.
With time potentially running out in a game, a season, an era — and perhaps even in his tenure in Tampa Bay — Palat scored the biggest goal of his career in the Eastern Conference final against the Rangers.
He drilled a one-timer into a tiny gap between goaltender Igor Shesterkin and the post with 41.6 seconds remaining to rescue the Lightning with a 3-2 victory in a pivotal Game 3.
“It’s not surprising to us to see him come up clutch in those moments,” said Stamkos, who chased Palat around the back of the net before jumping into his arms after the goal.
“Huge, huge moment for us, for this series, for the momentum. ‘Pally’ is a guy that no matter what the situation, no matter what the stage, he is Mr. Reliable.”
The description is perfect. Palat has never been in an All-Star Game, he has never scored 25 goals in a season and he has never been the biggest personality on a team filled with characters.
Palat has been the quiet one. The sidekick. He was the third member of the famed “Triplets” line in 2015, along with Kucherov and Tyler Johnson. He was the third guy on the line as Point led the NHL in goals and Kucherov led in points during the past two postseasons.
All Palat did was make everyone around him better.
“We’ve seen this for years. He is a quiet kid. He doesn’t say anything. All he does is give you everything he has on every shift,” coach Jon Cooper said. “He’s played up and down the lineup. He’s got that ability to play that blue-collar game with white-collar players. And that’s a great trait to have.
“He’s usually the third guy talked about on the lines he plays on, but he comes through with the statistics. … It’s much deserved, and his linemates would say the same thing.”
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You want to talk about statistics? How about this:
In the history of the Lightning franchise, no player has a better plus/minus rating than Palat. Not Marty St. Louis, not Vinny Lecavalier, not Stamkos and not Kucherov. Palat is plus-147, which ties him with Hedman for the franchise record. In 10 seasons, he has never had a minus rating.
“He’s as low maintenance as they come and as hard-working as they come,” Cooper said before the series began. “You beg to have a team full of Ondrej Palats.”
Officially, Palat on Sunday broke Johnson’s franchise record for winning goals in the postseason with 10, but that’s kind of a cheesy stat. It entails any goal that ends up being the difference in the final score, so Palat’s resume includes a half-dozen goals scored early in games when the Lightning already had a lead.
That doesn’t mean he hasn’t had moments before this. There was a goal in the final three minutes of a tie game against Detroit in the first round in 2016. There was another tiebreaking goal with about eight minutes left in Game 4 of the conference final against the Islanders in 2020. Before now, the biggest was probably in overtime against the Bruins in Game 2 of the second round in 2020.
But given the 0-2 hole the Lightning were in after the first two games of this series, this was the kind of moment that will stay in the hearts and memories of fans.
How did Palat describe it? In typical understated fashion.
“We shot the puck twice, (Kucherov) got it in the slot and made a great pass to me,” Palat said. “I was just trying to shoot it in net, and luckily it went in.”
It has not been talked about much, perhaps because no one wants to admit the possibility, but Palat, 31, could be in his final days in Tampa Bay. He can become a free agent as soon as the season ends, and the Lightning’s salary cap is already stretched thin. Nick Paul also can be a free agent and is four years younger, so the team is going to have some soul-searching to do when the season ends.
And perhaps that’s another reason Palat’s winner seemed poetic Sunday. The Lightning are still trailing the Rangers in the series, but their chances for survival got a lot better when Palat scored.
I asked Pat Maroon about Palat coming up with big moments on a team surrounded by stars, and he scoffed at the notion Palat isn’t a star.
“You’re not calling him a star?” Maroon said. “Have you looked at his stats? I’d call him a star in my eyes. He’s a big-time player who steps up in big-time moments, and that’s what stars do.”
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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