DENVER — As time wound down in the third period Friday night — with the Stanley Cup in the building and the Lightning’s season on the line — Ondrej Palat skated into a crowd in front of the Avalanche net.
The forward then drifted back into the slot, and as defenseman Victor Hedman took the puck down low toward the goal line by the far post, the Avalanche forgot about the Lightning’s Mr. Clutch.
Two Avalanche skaters left Palat to chase Hedman, and Palat lifted his stick to call for a one-timer. Hedman threaded a pass perfectly through traffic, and Palat went to one knee and unloaded. He filled the back of the net with yet another winning postseason goal to extend the Lightning’s season and their chase for three straight Stanley Cup titles.
Palat’s goal with 6:22 remaining in regulation gave Tampa Bay a 3-2 win in Game 5 at Ball Arena and a chance to even the series at three games each on home ice Sunday in Game 6.
“We always joke with ‘Pally’ that he just finds a way,” captain Steven Stamkos said. " ‘Sneaky P’ found a way to put one in there. Obviously, another huge one for us. We extend the season, and that’s what we wanted to do. We talked about one game at a time, and it was a grind, but we found a way.”
The Lightning had been outplayed in the two previous games in Denver, but in Game 5 they showed the will befitting a team that has won back-to-back Cup titles.
“You just watched the definition (of gamers),” coach Jon Cooper said.
Palat isn’t the first player who first comes to mind on a Lightning roster full of dynamic scorers, but his goal was his 12th career winner in the postseason, third most among active players, behind only Joe Pavelski (14) and Evgeni Malkin (13).
“He’s an elite player in this league,” forward Pat Maroon said. “He’s a star in this league, and he’s a big-time player in this league, and he shows up in big moments.”
After the game, Cooper reminisced about Palat’s first days in the AHL, when the organization pondered whether to groom him in the minors or send him back to juniors. The Lightning liked his game and his work ethic, and he has grown from a seventh-round draft pick to a key piece of the Lightning’s veteran core.
“And as (Palat) tells me quite often, he remembers every game I healthy-scratched him early in his career,” Cooper said. “And I say, ‘I have never healthy-scratched you.’ So we always get in this argument, but I think he may have sat out a couple games. But what you’re seeing today is what we saw in him.”
In Palat’s hometown, Frydek-Mistek, Czech Republic, where it was early Saturday, a crowd watched him play the role of hero again.
“My parents just texted me that there were like 80 people there,” Palat said, smiling. “It was 2 o’clock in the morning, so it’s nice to feel the support from back home even when the game is pretty late. So it just feels great.”
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The Lightning saw the Avalanche tie the score at 2 with a goal 2:31 into the third period when defenseman Cale Makar’s rebound hit off Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak’s skate and past goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. The arena was loud, the Lightning were on their heels, and they needed to create a break.
Forward Nikita Kucherov, who scored a 4-on-3 power-play goal in the second period to give the Lightning a 2-1 lead, brought the puck into the offensive zone. He circled back along the right circle and passed to defenseman Mikhail Sergachev at the point. Sergachev flung the puck to Hedman, who passed it back from the left circle as he drifted down low.
When Sergachev went back to Hedman, he immediately drew attention, leaving Palat wide open in the slot.
“A couple passes were made,” Palat said, “and then ‘Heddy’ ended up down low, and I was just trying to get open, get lost a little bit, and I saw Heddy, he sees me, so it was just easy shot for me.
“I’m just trying to one-time it, and luckily enough, it went in.”
Tampa Bay never trailed in the game, prevented the Avalanche from capitalizing on their few power-play opportunities — the Lightning penalty kill was 2-for-2 — and gave themselves a chance to win in the end.
“That’s how we want to keep it. That’s how we went to play,” Stamkos said. “You just try to do what we can to grind it out. That’s the way this team has won, and we’re built to play games that are tight like that.
“We’ve had success in the playoffs playing that way, and we don’t want to change now. So that was more like it, and we’ll look to continue that.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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