There is plenty of star power on the Tampa Bay Lightning — Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Victor Hedman, Brayden Point. But in the postseason during this historic run, it’s been the contributions from those that don’t get the spotlight or praise from national pundits that have made the difference. In their Game 3 victory over the New York Rangers, it was once again an unsung hero that came through in the clutch.
Ondrej Palat scored the game-winner with 41 seconds left, marking his 43rd career postseason goal and his sixth of the 2022 Playoffs. Since the start of the 2020 postseason, he has an astounding 22 goals, but he mostly goes overlooked as a key player on the team. Following Game 3, Lightning forward Pat Maroon was asked about Palat stepping up in big moments in spite of all the stars on the team.
“Are you not calling him a star?” Maroon answered. “Have you looked at his stats? I’d call him a star in my eyes. He’s a big-time player who steps up in big-time moments, and that’s what stars do.” Palat now has 10 game-winning goals in the playoffs in his career, which is as big time as it gets.
However, it isn’t just Palat that has stepped up in these games, and fans don’t have to look too far in the rearview mirror to find more examples of clutch performances from unexpected sources. Whether it was Nick Paul with two goals in Game 7 against the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ross Colton in Game 2 against the Florida Panthers, scoring with just over three seconds left, or Maroon with the Game 4 winning goal to complete the sweep of the Presidents’ Trophy winners, the Lightning are back in the Eastern Conference Final not just because of their stars.
Rewinding the Clock
It’s been a range of players over the two Stanley Cup runs for the Lightning where they’ve gotten big contributions from non-marquee players. In 2020, there were game-winning goals from Barclay Goodrow, Jan Rutta, Yanni Gourde, and Colton, followed up in 2021 by Anthony Cirelli and Kevin Shattenkirk.
“Process over outcome” has been a mantra of head coach Jon Cooper since getting eliminated in 2019 at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets. He has players that buy into what he’s selling, trusting their teammates, and putting each other in a position to succeed. It was the third line of Gourde, Goodrow, and Blake Coleman that the team and Cooper trusted against opposing teams’ top lines during the 2020 and 2021 championship runs. It’s also been fourth-liners like Colton and Maroon that have stepped up in key moments.
Lightning Special Teams
The contributions the Lightning are getting go beyond the score sheet or beating a goalie for a big goal. A large part of the success Tampa had on June 5 came from the penalty kill, more specifically, Paul and Alex Killorn. While the Rangers did score two power-play goals, Paul took a puck deep in the offensive zone, and when a shooting lane wasn’t there, he circled around and killed more time while fighting off three Rangers in the process. That allowed Cooper to send out a new set of penalty killers and continue the momentum.
On a brutal high stick penalty by Kucherov that sent him to the box for four minutes during the third period, it was Killorn who stole the puck and drew a tripping penalty on Jacob Trouba, negating half of Kucherov’s penalty and giving the Lightning two minutes of 4-on-4 hockey that helped neutralize New York’s dangerous power play. Trouba later elbowed Pierre-Edouard Bellemare on that same play, and while no call was made for that infraction, it was Bellemare’s hustle that helped Killorn set up a chance for the Lightning short-handed in their offensive zone.
The Lightning have the best penalty-kill unit of the postseason out of the teams left standing, going into Game 4 with a kill rate of 84.62 percent. Outside of Hedman, there are no “stars” to speak of when it comes to killing off those short-handed situations. Stamkos may come in for a faceoff on occasion, but he usually gets to the bench as quickly as possible when play resumes.
There is some speculation that New York won’t put up with Igor Shesterkin being crowded like he was in Game 3 for very long, especially given head coach Gerrard Gallant’s comments following the game. “It fazes me more than (Shesterkin). I don’t like it, I don’t think it’s a big part of it. Hopefully, when we talk to the supervisor tomorrow, they’ll take care of some of that because it wasn’t right.” (from ‘Rangers plan to address Lightning’s Shesterkin tactics with NHL’, New York Post, June 5, 2022). He was referring to a moment late in the second period where Kucherov appeared to trip Shesterkin after the play.
If the Rangers take a run at someone, Kucherov seems the likely target. He has been one of the best players on the ice for either team, and in what can be categorized as a “must win” for both sides, they may put the Lightning depth to the test and force them to win the series-tying game while relying on those unsung heroes rather than their biggest and most dangerous star. New York should look to smother Kuckerov defensively, effectively eliminating his big play ability. Tampa would then have to generate scoring opportunities with guys like Cirelli, Colton, or Killorn, who is looking to end a scoring drought in this postseason. He has no goals through the 14 games Tampa has played so far — a huge drop from the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs, where he had eight goals prior to breaking his leg in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals.
Game 4 will be a battle to change the course of the series. Going back to New York tied 2-2 or with the series sitting at 3-1 is a stark and drastic difference. Turning this into a best of three with Point on what appears to be the cusp of return could flip this series on its head (from ‘Lightning’s Brayden Point ruled out for Game 4 vs. Rangers’, Tampa Bay Times, June 6, 2022). “You don’t want to give a team like this breathing room. You’ve got to bury them when you can,” Ryan Reaves said to the media after going up 2-0 in the series. With the win in Game 3, the Lightning have a little breathing room and can create a whole lot more with another victory on Tuesday.
James has been covering sports – primarily the NFL and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – for nearly ten years. In addition to covering the Tampa Bay Lightning for The Hockey Writers, he is currently the co-host of the Locked On Bucs podcast and YouTube show and writes for various NFL outlets. When he isn’t writing or podcasting, he is focused on his son’s hockey schedule with the Jr Miami Redhawks. He currently resides in Dayton, Ohio with his wife and four sons.