NEW YORK — Last offseason, Ondrej Palat was one of the many key pieces of the Lightning’s veteran core that were left unprotected for the Seattle expansion draft.
The Kraken selected forward Yanni Gourde. Combine that move with the departures of forwards Blake Coleman (free agency) and Barclay Goodrow (trade), which dismantled their third line, and the Lightning have had to answer questions all year about how they’d be able to rebuild such an important part of their team.
But as the Lightning sit one win from their third straight Stanley Cup final appearance, where would they be without Palat? He is the dependable, grinding forward who puts himself in situations for success and has been a playoff hero over the course of the Lightnings’ drive for a three-peat.
“We had so many good players to choose from (in the expansion draft). I mean, ultimately, they probably couldn’t go wrong,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said of Seattle. “But ‘Pally’ … just the warrior mentality out there. He’s willing to do anything, and he gets rewarded because he plays the game the right way. And whether it’s hockey gods or karma or whatever it is, (when) you do the right things, things are bound to happen.”
Palat leads the Lightning with eight goals this postseason, including one in each of Tampa Bay’s three wins that have given them a 3-2 series lead in the Eastern Conference final against the Rangers. Game 6 is tonight.
Palat scored the Game 3 winner with 41.6 seconds left in regulation to give the Lightning their first win in the series. He capped a three-point night in Game 4 with an empty-net goal, and he earned the primary assist on each of the Lightning’s first two goals, including a nifty pass in the neutral zone that sprung forward Nikita Kucherov for Tampa Bay’s first score.
In Thursday’s Game 5 win at Madison Square Garden, Palat and Stamkos crashed the net from opposite sides and defenseman Mikhail Sergachev’s shot deflected off Palat’s knee and past Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin for the winner.
During the second half of the regular season, Palat had a 28-game stretch without a goal. But the Lightning were never concerned because he was still doing the little things that make his game efficient: winning puck battles, making smart passes and playing physically.
And at the end of the regular season, Palat had 18 goals, his most since his rookie season.
“I’m saying it all the time. I’m trying to play every single game the same way,” Palat said. “Sometimes it shows on the score sheet, sometimes not. Sometimes I have a better game when I don’t have any points. Sometimes I have some points and that game is not that great. So it’s great that I score a couple of goals, but I’m not judging my game off two points and stuff like that.”
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Palat has points in 11 of the Lightning’s 16 postseason games, including in seven of the past eight.
Dating to the 2014-15 season, Palat’s 43 postseason goals trail only Kucherov’s 50 for the Lightning. And over the past three postseasons, his 24 goals are second to Brayden Point’s 30. He has been a huge part of why the Lightning are now flirting with history.
“He works at it,” coach Jon Cooper said. “And that should be the lesson for young kids coming up. It’s all about the work you put in, and he does it. He doesn’t glide around the ice rink like (the Oilers’) Connor McDavid or some of the guys that are just gifted skaters.
“Although those guys work at it as well, don’t get me wrong, but they don’t take for granted when they get to the league that, ‘OK, take a breath. I’m in the league.’ They know that their work is just beginning, and (Palat is) like the leader of the pack in that regard.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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