NEW YORK – Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Because if you've watched the Tampa Bay Lightning in the last two seasons, you’ve probably heard it every time Tyler Johnson does something amazing, which is quite often this season.
Tyler Johnson, 24, was an undrafted rookie. Tyler Johnson is listed at 5-foot-8, which may have been a measurement taken while he was standing on a stack of media guides. His undrafted status and small stature and tenacious play is all reminiscent of another former Lightning star, winger Marty St. Louis of the New York Rangers, who skated with Johnson before his trade last season.
That’s the preamble for who Tyler Johnson has become in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs, which is the NHL’s leading goal-scorer with 11 tallies, the reverser of the Lightning’s bad fortunes and someone that’s greater than the sum of his well-worn narratives.
“Johnny’s his own player. I know the comparisons are going to be there [to St. Louis] – went undrafted …” said teammate Steven Stamkos, stopping the list before it starts.
“He plays center. He controls that line. He’s a big part of our team in all three zones. Fun to watch.”
Johnson’s line with Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov, known simply as “The Triplets,” have factored into five of the Bolts’ seven goals in the Eastern Conference Final, which Tampa Bay knotted up at 1-1 with the New York Rangers in a 6-2 rout on Monday night. Johnson had a hat trick in that game, the first postseason triple in Lightning history, to go along with his assist on Palat’s goal in their Game 1 loss.
“Any time you ask Johnny, he’ll say [his success] is the result of his linemates. Any time you ask his linemates, they’ll say it’s the result of Johnny,” said Stamkos. “That line has been huge for us all year. One of the best lines I’ve seen a long time to have that chemistry. Usually you see a lot of pairs. To have three guys to have that chemistry, that’s pretty special.”
It was the fourth multi-goal game of Johnson’s postseason, all of them coming when the Lightning were trailing in their series.
That clutch play speaks to a part of Johnson’s story that’s not as well known as his stature and draft status: His undeniable history of success.
“I've said this before: You walk into that kid's house and you look at the trophy mantle and all you see is trophies of where this kid has won,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “Memorial Cup, Calder Cup, World Juniors. Winning follows that kid. You're a special player for that to happen.
“Tyler Johnson is not the only one this happens to,” said Cooper. “But to do it in the greatest league in the world on the biggest stage, in the world's most famous arena, it's pretty impressive.”
Johnson’s first goal was the result of him pouncing on a turnover from St. Louis, sparking a shorthanded breakaway – on a 5-on-3 kill, no less – with Johnson leading Alex Killorn down the ice.
Johnson tried to be unselfish. His teammate urged him not to be.
“The entire way I kind of yelled ‘drop pass’ to Killorn, but he was yelling, ‘No, no, no!’ So I'm glad he was talking on it,” said Johnson. “Kind of got lucky, Lundqvist made a save, came back and I was able to get the rebound just enough.”
On the second goal, Johnson set up camp next to Lundqvist, snapping a shot past him on a 4-on-3 power play. He completed the trick with another strong drive to the net, converting a Palat shot into his third of the game (and a second video-reviewed goal of the night).
Then there was the game Johnson had away from the puck, including a sequence when he lost his stick, checked Rangers defenseman Marc Staal to take the puck and kicked it over to Stamkos for a scoring chance.
GIF: Johnson gets the pass to Stamkos despite not having his stick http://t.co/MRSNSzvtbz
— Stephanie Vail (@myregularface) May 19, 2015
“Those guys are resilient. They’re fast and skilled. They’re willing to go to the areas that not everyone is willing to go to,” said Stamkos of "The Triplets."
It’s not hard to draw a contrast between the way Johnson’s line played in Game 2 and the way the Rangers’ biggest names did not play in Game 2.
The Rangers’ top line of Rick Nash, Derick Brassard and Kevin Hayes didn’t generate a point in the game. Nash couldn’t convert on a partial breakaway and had just three shot attempts in 15:43. Listening to his coach after the loss, there might as well have been a flashing sign that screamed RICK NASH as he broke down who didn’t show up in vague terms.
“Their top players had a very strong game, and a couple of our best players didn’t have their best game tonight,” said Rangers coach Alain Vigneault. “He took his game to another level tonight.”
There’s been a lot of “next level” to Johnson’s game this season, which saw him tally 72 points in 77 games, and in the playoffs. The deeper he pushes into the postseason, the further back those clichés about his journey to the NHL are pushed into his rearview.
Like after Game 2, when he was asked how a diminutive player survives in the NHL. “I don't really think size really plays a big role,” Johnson said. “Everyone plays the game different regardless of how big you are, and you've just got to find what works for you.”
Like also after Game 2, when he was asked if his diminutive status plus his undrafted origins are fuel for his efforts. “I don't know if that's really driving me to be honest with you,” Johnson said.
“I think every morning I'm just happy to be here and I'm living my dream.”
Thanks to Johnson, the Lightning woke up in Game 2.
“He was big for us tonight. He led the way,” said Stamkos.
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