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Lightning only a threat with Tyler Johnson at full speed

Tyler Johnson has one goal and four assists in his past eight games. Scott Audette/Getty Images

SUNRISE, Fla. -- If there is one player who epitomizes the range of emotions that have assailed the Tampa Bay Lightning this season it is Tyler Johnson.

The frustration, the disappointment and finally, just now, the hope of something better.

And if there is one player whose return to form is mostly closely aligned to the team's ability to return to legitimate Stanley Cup contender status, it is the 25-year-old.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper is unequivocal: Without consistent secondary scoring from players like Johnson and his "Triplets" linemate Ondrej Palat, who also just recovered from injury, "we aren't a threat."

Captain Steven Stamkos remains the face of the franchise in spite of his ongoing contract stalemate, but it was the emergence of the undrafted Johnson as a front-line center two years ago that has helped forge the Lightning's identity as a fast, talented team that can hurt you from everywhere in the lineup.

There is no disputing the fact that without Johnson, the team's No. 1 center, the Lightning don't get anywhere near the Stanley Cup finals last spring, as he led the league with 13 playoff goals and was tied for the playoff scoring lead with 23 points.

Throughout the first three rounds he made crucial plays at crucial times, as the Lightning defeated both the Detroit Red Wings and New York Rangers in hotly contested seven-game sets, as well as knocking off a Montreal Canadiens team that had swept them the season before. The fact Johnson soldiered through a broken wrist in the finals against the Chicago Blackhawks was a testament to his doggedness; and while the debate is moot, it is still fair to ask how much different that series, won by Chicago in six games, would have been had Johnson not been so disabled that he could not take faceoffs.

But what was expected to be a normal recovery from the injury did not go as planned. Johnson could not prepare for the season as he normally would because of the cast. And, the wrist hampered his play once he did return to action.

With other players likewise banged up, the Lightning meandered through the first half of the season sinking at times below the playoff bubble.

"I mean it's definitely been tough," Johnson said during an interview prior to a recent game against in-state foe the Florida Panthers. "This is definitely the most adversity that I've ever had to face personally in a year. It's just kind of been a weird year. I don't know any other way to describe it."

Johnson was named an NHL All-Star last season as his 72-point season was tied with Stamkos for the team lead. But this season, he failed to score a goal in his first 12 games and he's already missed time with injury three separate times, including a seven-game stint on the disabled list with a lower body injury in mid-December.

But it was after this last injury that Johnson finally began to feel as though the wrist was back to 100 percent.

"I haven't been able to be in a groove, I haven't been able to catch my stride at all this season," Johnson said. "Thankfully now I've battled through that and starting to get healthy and starting to kind of find my game trying to play the way I can play. Just feel more comfortable every single day."

How close is Johnson to being his old self?

Cooper recalls the moment he knew the answer to that question.

It was late in a mid-January game with Florida, and the Lightning were up a goal. Johnson, a mainstay on both sides of the special-teams coin for the Lightning, was killing a penalty. He and Palat were trapped on the ice in their own zone for the entire two-minute Florida power play.

At the end of the kill, Johnson got a hold of the puck. Cooper and likely everyone else at the Amalie Arena assumed Johnson would ice the puck but instead he saw an opening and accelerated up ice.

"You can imagine how gassed everybody was," Cooper said. "But he skated 200 feet. He started pulling away."

Johnson got a shot on net and forced an offensive zone faceoff for the Lightning, who went on to win 3-1.

"At that moment I was like, 'Johnson's back,'" Cooper recalled.

One Eastern Conference talent evaluator said he's always been impressed with Johnson's work ethic and the fact that he seemed to literally come out of nowhere to become a top NHL center. Needless to say, the scout said, a healthy Johnson makes the Lightning a much more dangerous team and that's what they are now.

Johnson's point total won't be anywhere close to what it was a year ago.

Not sure that matters a whole lot. Not with the Lightning hitting the All-Star break playing their best hockey of the season, riding a 7-2-1 streak heading into Wednesday's final pre-break game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.

And with lots of hockey left to play before the playoffs begin in mid-April, there is a growing sense that maybe these peaks and valleys of the first two-thirds of the season may not be such a bad thing for a team looking to galvanize itself for another long run.

Johnson, who has a goal and four assists in his past eight games, feels he has been toughened by what he's been through this season.

"I think I'm definitely stronger mentally," the Spokane, Washington, native said. "There were some dark times in this season already where I had to battle through some things. Some things were really tough.

"It's hard not to get discouraged. Luckily for me, though, I have such a good supporting cast of family and friends and teammates and a lot of people that believe in me and that's all that really matters. I think overall I just have more confidence in myself to get through these. All I have to do is work harder, and I know I can do that."