- Joe McDonald, ESPN Staff Writer
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NEW YORK -- In an era of too many low-scoring games, especially in the Stanley Cup playoffs, there’s one line for the Tampa Bay Lightning that stands out as a sort of throwback.
Watching the Lightning’s “Triplets Line” of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov is evidence that exciting hockey still exists, as long as a coach is willing to allow creativity. The nickname comes from Jon Cooper's comment earlier in the season that the linemates were so in sync, they were like triplets.
The trio has combined for 18 goals and 15 assists in 14 playoff games this season. Palat notched Tampa’s only goal (a power-play goal with an assist from Johnson) in its 2-1 loss to the New York Rangers in Game 1 Saturday at Madison Square Garden. Game 2 is Monday night; Rangers lead the series 1-0.
For a team that led the league during the regular season with 3.16 goals per game, the Lightning didn’t do a good enough job creating scoring chances against Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
“They’ve been their best line so far,” Vigneault said. “Not to say that the [Steven] Stamkos line is not a big threat also, but throughout their first series, Johnson’s line has been more effective. So, for that game [Saturday], we decided to go that way. Doesn’t mean we’re going to go that way [in Game 2].”
You can blame the lack of scoring throughout the league on many teams promoting a defense-first mentality. You can blame oversized goalie equipment and bigger goaltenders, too.
The Rangers are a team that could score more, but their style of suffocating opponents works for them, which is how they won the first game of this series. In order for the Lightning to beat the Rangers and advance to the Stanley Cup finals, Tampa needs more from Johnson’s line.
Veteran Rangers defenseman Dan Boyle described that line perfectly.
“Standing still against those guys will get you in trouble,” he said. "They play the game the way the game was played 10 years ago. They make plays a little bit more than what we’re seeing today, and the way the game is played today."
The best part about the triplets is they’re not a bunch of superstars. Johnson, 24, signed with Tampa as a free agent; Kucherov, 21, was a second-round draft pick (58th overall) in the 2011 draft; Palat, 24, was a seventh-round selection (208th overall) in 2011. This line combination is a testament that chemistry is a real thing in hockey.
Since there’s more focus on defense in today’s game, talented offensive players don’t have much of an impact in the offensive zone. Fortunately for the Lightning, coach Jon Cooper has allowed the triplets to remain dynamic.
“It says a lot about the guys that I’m playing with,” said Johnson, who leads the league with eight playoff goals. “They’re high-quality players that can make plays and we enjoy being able to do that. Coop lets us be a little creative and that goes a long ways.”
When teams reach the postseason, especially the conference finals, games become much tighter. There’s more attention to detail. Teams are more conscious and don’t want to give up too much. Players are not taking shifts off, which happens during the regular season. In many cases in the playoffs, it’s do-or-die, and the desperation level is higher.
It’s still exciting hockey, but the lack of scoring can become mind-numbing at times. It’s not often you can still see a line like Johnson’s.
“You’re seeing less and less,” Boyle said. “There’s not that many. The game’s certainly changed. Yes, that makes me sound like an old guy, but I am. The game’s certainly evolved to what it is today, and it’s a low-goal-scoring affair now. Teams are blocking a lot of shots, finding ways to just get the puck in the neutral zone and wear other teams down. There’s not that many."
The last thing a team wants to do is pump the tires of an opponent, especially in the playoffs. But when pressured further about the triplets, Boyle couldn’t help himself.
“I like watching creative players making creative plays," he said. "We all do. As fans, I’m sure they do as well. Our job is to shut them down, of course, but it’s refreshing to see that.”
Hockey needs more creativity. It needs to allow those gifted athletes to showcase their skills. A few rule changes would help, too. Boyle believes there’s one change that would help bring back more scoring.
“Those long passes where guys are just tipping their blades, the puck goes in the other end, I’d want to see that become an icing,” he said. “I’d like to see a little bit more plays being made through the neutral zone instead of those long, long passes.
“There used to be three zones, where now I’m seeing more two zones. I see more an offensive zone and defensive zone. I don’t know if the neutral zone is a zone you see too much in. Obviously, teams want to get the puck in and not make mistakes. It is what it is, man.”
Johnson had an interesting take as to why the game has changed in recent years, at least since he’s been in the league the last three seasons.
“The game has gotten a lot faster,” Johnson said. “You look at the plays people do now, even decision-making, it’s a lot quicker. Everyone is always in the right spot. Instead of taking a second or two to make a play, they’re doing it right away.”
Ask Cooper, or any of the Tampa players, and they’ll say it will take an entire team effort to beat the Rangers. As true as that is, the Lightning need the triplets in particular to be dynamic.