The Triplets were all the rage for quite a while before recently going cold. But two members of the Tampa Bay Lightning trio of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat began heating up just in time.
Tampa Bay fell victim to a quick two-goal spurt in the third period by the Chicago Blackhawks and dropped a 2-1 decision at home in the opener of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday. Three nights later, history began repeating itself as the Blackhawks scored twice in a span of 2:16 early in the second session to grab another 2-1 lead.
That’s when the duo of Kucherov and Johnson took charge. The former answered Teuvo Teravainen’s power-play goal with a tally of his own 1:32 later to forge a tie before setting up Johnson with 6:02 remaining in the period for a 3-2 edge.
Chicago tied the contest early in the third, but Tampa Bay moved ahead on defenseman Jason Garrison’s man-advantage goal at 8:49 and held on for a 4-3 triumph, evening the series. While Garrison came up with the winning tally, it was Kucherov and Johnson who stopped the bleeding and breathed life into a team that appeared to be on its way to a lopsided loss and an 0-2 series deficit.
“As the playoffs go on, it gets harder to score,” Johnson told the Tampa Tribune. “But with our line, right now, we’re playing just average. We’re not doing as well as we should. We know that. It’s time for us to step up.”
Kucherov, who had been the most productive member of the line of late, tipped a shovel shot from the point by Garrison past Corey Crawford and inside the left post for his 10th of the postseason. Chicago’s netminder was poorly positioned on the play, failing to completely block the short side as Kucherov made a perfect redirection.
“I’m not sure if Crawford ever saw it,” Kucherov told the Tribune. “We gave up two quick goals, so it was good to respond. We never felt down. We always had the belief.”
A little more than seven minutes later, Kucherov got the puck down low to Johnson, who also took advantage of a shaky Crawford. Driving to the net from below the left faceoff circle, Johnson let go a seemingly harmless backhand shot that hit Crawford and somehow found its way inside the left post for a 3-2 lead.
Kucherov had gone only two games without a point, his second-longest drought of these playoffs after a three-game stretch against the Detroit Red Wings in the first round. Since then, the 21-year-old hadn’t gone more than one contest without either scoring or setting up a goal.
Johnson’s goal — his first in six games — was his league-leading and franchise-record 13th of the postseason. The 24-year-old native of Spokane, Washington, who also tops all NHL players with 22 points, moved ahead of current Blackhawk Brad Richards and Ruslan Fedotenko (both in 2004) for the Lightning’s mark for a single postseason.
“Not scoring goals is a tough thing, but at the same time, there’s a lot more to the game,” Johnson said. “If you’re getting the chances, if you’re working hard, that’s all that really matters, as long as the team wins.”
Johnson, who is one point ahead of his Russian linemate for the NHL scoring lead, has registered four multi-goal performances thus far this postseason, including his first career playoff hat trick. Entering Saturday’s contest, Johnson had scored four of Tampa Bay’s eight game-winning goals.
Palat failed to land on the scoresheet in Game 2, remaining cold as he’s only recorded one goal and one assist in his last six contests. Prior to the slump, the 24-year-old Czech had collected four goals and three assists during a four-game point streak.
“That line has been outstanding for us from start to finish,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper told the Tribune. “I don’t think anybody should be judged (solely) on their point totals. You can’t score every single night. It’s really hard, unless your name is Gretzky.
“They have carried the load for us. For them to get going like that, it’s a good sign for our team.”
And a not-so-good sign for the Blackhawks.