When general manager Steve Yzerman gambled by selecting a young Czech winger 208th overall in the 2011 NHL Draft, nobody batted an eye. There wasn’t any second guessing by other teams because few late round picks turn into difference-makers for their team.
Ondrej Palat is an exception. One that the Tampa Bay Lightning are glad they took a risk on years ago.
He may never score like Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov or even Steven Stamkos. His goals aren’t flashy and he’s not the most physical player on the ice. For all the hard work he puts in, many write him off. By that, I mean he’s never given credit for making the play of the game, whether offensively or defensively.
Think about it. Games can be won or lost in a matter of seconds. Making the right play at the right time is crucial to success. If guys constantly jump into a rush up ice, there’s a good chance that an odd-man rush is heading the other way. Coaches preach defense first, for this reason.
Palat is a coach’s dream and opposition’s nightmare when on the ice. He’s usually the level-headed guy who makes all the right reads and reacts quickly enough to foil any plans the other team has.
It’s this type of player that can play a key role in a team’s success, something the Lightning found out firsthand this season.
Palat Injury Contributed To Bolts’ Slide
The Lightning were steamrolling through everyone in the first few months of 2017-18. They looked unstoppable to the rest of the league. They hadn’t lost double digit games in regulation into the start of the new year.
Everything changed on one fateful day — Jan. 20, 2018. On a borderline dirty play by the Minnesota Wild’s Jared Spurgeon, Palat suffered a lower-body injury that sidelined him for nearly two months.
Without him in the lineup, the Lightning fell back to Earth. During the time Palat was out, the Lightning lost six games. That’s not bad, but the way they lost some of those was cause for concern.
Instead of being close, the opposition had more quality chances than one can imagine. The shots on goal routinely went past 30 and goaltenders Andrei Vasilevskiy and Louis Domingue had to make one spectacular save after another to give the Lightning a chance to win. If one was off his game, well, things got ugly and fast.
The opposition scored four or more goals in nine of the 26 games Palat missed. Not all of those were losses, as this team can score in bunches and they had some success in overtime or shootouts. Still, that points to a lack of defense from the team.
Upon Palat’s return to the lineup, the Lightning began showing slight improvements despite a 5-4-1 record. Instead of consistently allowing 30-plus shots per game, they started limiting opponents to under 30 in some games.
As the playoffs drew closer, the Lightning clamped down defensively. Palat helped drive things, resuming his role of playing in all situations and excelling. This could best be seen in the 4-0 shutout of Boston during the last week of the regular season, a game that likely decided the Atlantic Division champion.
Palat: Experienced Playoff Performer
Experienced as they come, Palat’s playoff background began with him helping to lead the Lightning’s former AHL affiliate, the Norfolk Admirals, to a Calder Cup in 2011-12. The following year, he was a key piece of the Syracuse Crunch’s run to the Calder Cup final. Though they ultimately fell short, his line with Johnson and Richard Panik was outstanding all series and all playoffs long.
Palat’s first NHL playoff series came in 2013-14. It was brief, with the Montreal Canadiens having their way in a four-game sweep of the young Lightning.
In saying that, his game reached a whole new level in 2014-15. Although he was solid all playoffs long, his real coming out party occurred in the Eastern Conference Final versus the New York Rangers.
With everyone saying the Lightning were doomed to fall because of Henrik Lundqvist’s Game 7 success at Madison Square Garden, it was Palat who silenced the crowd, and likely put the exclamation point on the game that probably busted many brackets worldwide.
These 2017-18 playoffs have been Palat’s best though. He started things off by recording three points in the Lightning’s 5-2 Game 1 win over the New Jersey Devils.
Next up, he and his linemates, Johnson and future star Brayden Point, were tasked with shutting down the Bruins’ top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak. After a tough game early, they clamped down defensively and ended up taking the series.
So far, through one game of the Eastern Conference Final, Palat has a goal. It came in the third period, with the Lightning desperately seeking to find positives in a game the Washington Capitals dominated for two periods.
Now, Palat will look to lead the Lightning back to even ground after yet another frustrating Game 1 setback. He’s a critical part of this team’s success. One that has the ability to lead this team back to Stanley Cup glory down the road.