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Michelle Timian The Hockey Writers

Published on Monday, February 9, 2015





Crunch Time for the Lightning

A look at team stats shows center Tyler Johnson first in points, followed by Ondrej Palat 13 points after him. No, this is not the 2014-2015 season and these are not the Tampa Bay Lightning. This is the 2012-2013 Syracuse Crunch, AHL affiliate of the Bolts, where Johnson and Palat played together before call-ups to the Lightning that season (14 games played for both forwards) and before becoming NHL regulars in the 2013-2014 season.

Since then, the two have dominated, being named finalists for the Calder Trophy from the 2014 NHL Awards and forming the dangerous “Triplets Line” with Nikita Kucherov that is worrying opposing defensemen in the league today.

Back in 2012-2013, the duo scorched the opposition in the AHL, with Johnson putting up 65 points in 62 games (his 37 goals led the AHL that season) and Palat not too far off, scoring 13 goals and 39 assists for 52 in 56 games played. The consistency at the NHL level is incredible. During the 2013-2014 season that saw them both become Calder Trophy finalists, Johnson put up 50 points in 82 games and Palat with 59 points in 81 games, exceptional numbers for youngsters adjusting to the NHL game.

What makes them (and other AHL graduate Kucherov) so scary is that it only took them one season to learn how to play in hockey’s top league. Currently, Johnson has 52 points in 53 games played (19 goals, 33 assists) and Palat has 39 points in 51 games played (11 goals, 28 assists).

All of this while avoiding the dreaded sophomore slump; such a feat that named Johnson’s team-leading production as one of the top-six surprising aspects of the first half of the 2014-2015 season.

One reason for their dependability when other NHL sophomores (most notably Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon, who put up 24-39-63 points in his Calder-winning rookie season only to fall to 9-20-29 this season) have struggled might be that the two not only continue to play together on the same line in Tampa, but have remained together for several seasons throughout the Lightnings’ system.

In this interview with Puck Daddy, Johnson speaks of the chemistry he shares with his linemates as the reason for his (and their) success.

Q. Why does this line you’re on work so well?

“Tough to say why it works. We all play similar games, similar styles, but all add a little aspect to it. But we’re obviously working hard. Pally and Kutch make the game easier with how they play.”

Q. With you and Palat last season vying for the Calder, is there any form of friendly rivalry there?

“Not really. We’ve played together for four years now. We’ve been through it all together. He’s one of the guys … well, everyone’s like this, but if someone wasn’t scoring and he scores, it almost feels like I did. We pull for each other. Best friends, on and off the ice.”

That is some pretty strong bromacing there and, as the Hockey Writers’ Anna Santiago wrote in September, there are clearly benefits of a bromance in the NHL.

The NHL is chock-filled with bromances, most commonly between players close in age. These close relationships not only provide endless entertainment for the media during joint interviews, but an opportunity for the players to feed off each others’ abilities in order to better their game.

Take Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, for example. Off the ice, the two are often seen together, proving the two are not only teammates but good friends as well. The pair are arguably the best duo in the league, so in tune with each other that they can execute a spur-of-the-moment, head-turning play without saying one word to each other on the ice.

Sounds a lot like what Johnson said in his Puck Daddy interview.

The Lightning are certainly reaping the benefits of the Johnson and Palat dynamic, but their time together with the Syracuse Crunch will have them prepped for another reason: a potential playoff run against the Detroit Red Wings.

While the two teams continue to battle for positioning as the regular season closes out, there is a very real possibly that the Lightning and Red Wings will meet at some point in the postseason. In 2013, their AHL affiliates played for the Calder Cup and now several players from the AHL playoff series have all made it to the Show.

While the Grand Rapids Griffins won the Calder Cup in six games, Palat (7-19-26) and Johnson (10-11-21) were the first and third leading scorers in the playoffs.

As their familiarity with one another helps them reach scoring heights in Tampa, will familiarity with Grand Rapids help Johnson and Palat excel against a potential playoff foe?  The Lightning and their fans certainly hope so.

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