Tampa’s terrific trio looks to catch lightning in a bottle again after shocking the league a season ago.
They celebrated their first birthday in late October, the 24th to be exact. But there was no cake. Knowing these guys, they would have just kept passing the pieces to each other and nobody would have had any. But it’s an event worth celebrating. It’s not often in today’s NHL you get a line that lasts that long. It’s not often today you get a line that lasts more than a couple games. The Production Line (Lindsay-Abel-Howe), the Punch Line (Blake-Lach-Richard), the French Connection (Martin-Perreault-Robert), the GAG Line (Hadfield-Ratelle-Gilbert), the Kraut Line (Dumart-Schmidt-Bauer) – all those guys have gone on to that great pond hockey game in the sky or are collecting social security checks.
They played at a time when “men were men” and you could drill a guy’s bare head into the glass without fear of reprisal. Nope, they don’t make lines like that anymore. That is, they didn’t until early last season when Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper looked down his bench in Winnipeg and realized he only had 10 forwards. The Jets had been throwing their weight around, and before the end of the first period, J.T. Brown had taken a hit from Chris Thorburn and Brett Connolly had been rubbed out by Andrew Ladd. Neither right winger was available for the rest of the game, so Cooper had to get creative. In a move that was hockey’s equivalent to Wally Pipp being replaced by Lou Gehrig, Cooper put the left-shooting Nikita Kucherov in Connolly’s spot on a line centered by Tyler Johnson and left-flanked by Ondrej Palat.
The record will show the Triplets were born at 17-feet, seven inches and 551 pounds, between the 17:53 and 18:02 marks of the second period that night in Winnipeg, the result of a screwed up icing call that placed the faceoff at center ice. Johnson cleanly wins the draw on the backhand over Adam Lowry of the Jets. Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman, with Winnipeg’s T.J. Galiardi in hot pursuit, goes back to his zone to retrieve it and quickly fires the puck off the boards out of his zone. Then the magic happens. Kucherov, who is in a perfect support position, executes a no-look tip between his legs with his back to the play, which immediately catches Jets defenseman Tobias Enstrom pinching in the middle of the ice and makes him the star of the Jets video the next day entitled, About Last Night: The Anatomy of a Whuppin’. The puck lands on Johnson’s stick at the red line, and he enters the zone with all kinds of speed, with only Jets defenseman Zach Bogosian between him and the goal. The right-shot Johnson feathers a saucer pass on his forehand to Palat, who snaps it past Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec for a 4-1 lead in what would become a 4-2 victory for the Lightning. “It was an injury thing, so I can’t sit here and say, ‘Oh, I had this unbelievable foresight that these guys were going to work together,’ ” Cooper said, “but I was smart enough to keep them together.” It was almost as though from that moment, Palat, Johnson and Kucherov have had some sort of uncanny kinship that gives them a sense of where each other is on the ice at all times. How else do you explain Kucherov tipping it between his legs to Johnson? It’s a scene that played itself over and over again last season and has continued into this one. There was no better line in hockey last season to the eyeballs of the seasoned hockey pundits, or among the analytics crowd, than the Triplets. No line scored as many goals or had more of an impact, and no unit embedded itself into the consciousness of hockey fans the way this one did. In an era when twosomes seem to be all the rage, with a third interloper moving in and out of the mix, the Triplets have found a comfort zone and level of success that has them solidly on the lineup board for the Lightning and their opponents, usually as the second unit behind Steven Stamkos and whoever it is that he’s playing with these days. “In Kuch’s rookie year, he didn’t play with us, and I spoke maybe two words to him that year,” Johnson said. “It’s been fun to get to know him. I love playing with him, and I love having him around.” All three lived in the same condo complex last season before Palat went out and bought himself a house. But Palat settling down is not a case of “Jimmy quit, Jody got married,” for the three. They still hang out off the ice, usually going for sushi at Kucherov’s suggestion. “They’re all unreal friends, so it’s not like they come to the rink and then all take off away from each other,” Cooper said. “They’re together, which is a little odd sometimes because we have some Russians and they seem to hang out together, but Kuch, they’re all pretty close and they all kind of hang out together.” Johnson and Palat have had a comfort level that goes back to their days in the minors, where they also played for Cooper and had a ton of success. In fact, this season marks the fifth straight that Palat and Johnson have been linemates. That they have meshed with Kucherov, who plays his off-wing and the role of the strong, silent type of the group, is a testament to the unselfish nature of both their games. “Our lines are changing all the time except for us,” Johnson said. “It’s kind of weird. I even noticed it in camp this year. ‘Pally’ and I were together for a couple of (pre-season) games, and Kuch wasn’t there and it felt weird. I remember having lines in the past, and you don’t feel that weirdness, but for some reason it’s just kind of different not having both of them.” Those who can hearken to the late 1980s might remember a movie called ‘Twins.’ It starred Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito as Julius and Vincent Benedict, who, unaware of each other’s existence, discover as adults that they were the result of a secret experiment conducted at a genetics factory and that they’re biological twins. It was goofy and campy enough to make $216 million at the worldwide box office and make Schwarzenegger and DeVito very rich, or very richer, since they negotiated a deal to receive 20 percent of the box office revenue. Almost 30 years later, there’s actually a script for a sequel in which the Benedict brothers find out there was another sibling that was created during the experiment, a third brother played by Eddie Murphy. Heh-heh. It sounds like a disaster. Universal Studios is apparently holding onto the script, uncertain about its future, and we can only hope it decides to never embark on making ‘Triplets’, because, seriously, who would ever believe in such a ridiculous concept? Seriously, who would think three guys – one from Frydek-Mistek, Czech Republic, another from Moscow, Russia and a third from Spokane, Wash., – could form a trio so in tune with one another’s on-ice rhythms and habits that they could become one of the most dominant lines in hockey? After all, by all conventional thinking, two of them shouldn’t even be in the league. Did we mention Johnson is 5-foot-8 and he’s from Spokane? Not exactly a hockey factory, but you don’t have to be from a hockey factory if you’re willing to make the commute he and his parents did when he was playing minor hockey. Johnson is actually from Liberty Lake, a small suburb of Spokane. His mother, Debbie, was a skating instructor and his father, Ken, a hockey coach. After seeing their son outgrow the local competition – in the metaphorical sense only – the Johnsons would spend most summer weekends making the seven-hour trip to Vancouver for summer hockey. The local junior team, the WHL’s Spokane Chiefs, waited until the 11th round to draft him. He went on to score 128 goals and 282 points in four seasons, helping the Chiefs win the Memorial Cup in 2008 and the U.S. win World Junior Championship gold in 2010. Johnson was never drafted but went as an invite to the Phoenix Coyotes’ camp in 2008 and the Minnesota Wild’s in 2009 and 2010. Imagine that. Sounds a little like the story of Martin St-Louis. As was the case with St-Louis, the Lightning saw something in Johnson nobody else did and decided to offer him a contract to play on their AHL team. Palat’s journey to the NHL wasn’t quite as circuitous, but neither did he get drafted in his first year of eligibility. Coming over to North America at 18, Palat was taken as a 19-year-old after a 96-point season with the Drummondville Voltigeurs of the QMJHL, and even then it was with the fourth-last pick of that draft, in the seventh round at 208th overall. Kucherov is the outlier of the group, going in the second round of the 2011 draft to the Lightning, but his journey to the NHL wasn’t without its own obstacles. He came to play for the Quebec Remparts in 2012-13, which just happened to be a lockout year, which meant the Remparts had to make room for Mikhail Grigorenko and their two other import players. Kucherov found himself in and out of the lineup along with Nick Sorensen and, despite scoring three goals and 10 points in six games after coming off shoulder surgery, was a frequent visitor to coach Patrick Roy’s doghouse. It was only after he was dealt to the Rouyn-Noranda Huskies that Kucherov flourished, tallying 26 goals and 53 points in 27 regular season games before adding nine goals and 24 points in the playoffs. “We all had to battle something at some point,” Johnson said. “I mean, Pally was a seventh-rounder. Kuch was a second-rounder, but if you look at his draft report, a lot of people said he was lazy and stuff, but I’ve never seen that from him. I’m sure he slipped off other people’s radars, but people couldn’t have been more wrong about him.” Last season, the Triplets played 668 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey together, and they made the most of their time. Johnson averaged almost 2.97 points 5-on-5 per 60 minutes to lead the league. Palat was second in that category at 2.92 and Kucherov was seventh at 2.64. As a team, the Lightning scored 4.31 goals per 60 minutes when the Triplets were on the ice together and just 2.21 when they weren’t. As a line, they scored 48 goals together last season and allowed 23, meaning they basically scored two goals for every one they allowed. That’s how much this team relied on them last season. For the three players, it’s simply a matter of trust. It’s something that has always existed between Palat and Johnson and was built with Kucherov. Remember that blind between-the-legs pass Kucherov made on one of his first shifts, with Johnson and Palat? Well, that kind of pass can turn out disastrously if Johnson’s not there to pick it up and use his speed to gain the zone. It’s the kind of pass that can get a player nailed to the bench if it goes sideways. Perhaps that was the one that set the tone for the group. Kucherov made the pass, Johnson was there and everything turned out honky-dory. “We all play the same way,” Kucherov said. “We know where everybody is. You don’t even have to look for the pass. You just know where it is. You can just make the blind pass. You trust him and he trusts you.” That trust engenders a pack mentality with the three of them. There have been times when they’ve had to stick up for each other on the ice, even though not one of them would be seen as much of a tough customer. None has ever been assessed a fighting major during his career, but there have been some close calls. Last season, about a month after the trio had been united, Rick Nash of the New York Rangers took a highsticking penalty against Palat, and Johnson jumped in to help, which earned Nash another minor. Not only did the Lightning get a 5-on-3 advantage, on which they scored, they got the better of the exchange, at least as far as they remember it. “Nash ended up on his ass, I think,” Palat said.
There’s an unstated level of accountability with the three, but there’s also a bit of fun. For example, Johnson has learned all the Russian swear words Palat and Kucherov already knew. Johnson is particularly hard on himself when he makes a mistake, and when he comes back to the bench cursing to himself, he can often see in the corner of his eye Palat and Kucherov sharing a chuckle about it. And it didn’t take long for that to develop. It was Cooper who came up with the nickname for the line from watching his twin daughters, Julia and Josephine, interact at home. His girls finish each other’s sentences and seem to share a wavelength that is not privy to anyone else. When he was talking about the line after one game, that came to his mind. He called them the Triplets, and the name has stuck. Cooper said that when players on the Lightning go through video of their games, they do so individually. But not Palat, Johnson and Kucherov. They huddle around the monitor together and instead of having Cooper break down their games, they do it themselves. That wavelength that Cooper’s twin daughters share hangs in the air while the three of them talk, not in tongues, but with a unique understanding of one another’s games. “All of a sudden, you’re looking at the game from their perspective and it’s remarkable,” Cooper said. “They just talk it out among themselves, and they just look at me and say, ‘OK, are we good?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, we’re good.’ ” The early part of this season hasn’t gone as well for the Triplets. Part of the reason for that is, like the Lightning, the Triplets aren’t creeping up on anyone this season. Last year in the Stanley Cup final, they saw a steady diet of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook and, combined with the broken wrist through which Johnson was playing, the line’s effectiveness was limited. Perhaps that’s to be expected. The Triplets had an 11.6 shooting percentage as a group, a figure considerably lower this season. And they’ve noticed now they’re facing far more difficult matchups. Cooper said in the first game of the season, Johnson and Palat had a 2-on-1 in which the defenseman gambled and played the pass to Palat, which basically gave Johnson a breakaway. Instead of shooting, Johnson elected to pass. “I was like, ‘OK, we understand you’re buddies, but let’s be a little selfish here, too,” Cooper said. “That was something where ‘Johnny’ would have shot for sure (last season). He wouldn’t even have thought about it.” Will the Triplets lead the league in points again this season? It seems unlikely, unless they recapture the magic of 2014-15. Already, Cooper has had to pull them aside to quell their frustration, telling them to look at their entire body of work and that there will be nights when perhaps they’re not the best trio on the ice. They continue to go for sushi. Johnson continues to be bewildered at Palat’s affinity for electronic dance music, which seems to be blasting from every electronic device Palat owns. They’ll all still have chicken, pasta, broccoli and salad as their pre-game meal and on the road go out for steak dinners. What came to them so easily last season will take more effort in 2015-16. As Cooper said, “Now, the journey is going to be different.” As the three of them sit in the lobby of a Buffalo hotel early in the season, Palat knocks on the table, saying he hopes all three can stay healthy and productive. What he doesn’t realize is he’s knocking on a porcelain surface. “It’s supposed to be wood,” Johnson said. Not exactly finishing the guy’s sentence, but you get the idea. They don’t know each other’s favorite movies, but they do know exactly where the other two are going to be on the ice. And who knows? There may come a day when the Triplets will have to be split up. The Lightning have had a pretty impressive run of good health among their forwards since last season, and an injury can change everything. So can a sustained bout of subpar play. Which will make things weird for a while for the Triplets and cause the coach no end of consternation. “I hope that doesn’t come,” Cooper said, “because that probably means things have gone south.”
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the November 23 edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.