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Ondrej Palat is the Lightning's Not-So-Secret Weapon

The Tampa Bay Lightning are known for their stars. But Ondrej Palat has been the perfect sidekick, and is on his way to helping them earn a third straight Stanley Cup.
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You know the Tampa Bay Lightning's big guns. 

Nikita Kucherov. Steven Stamkos. Andrei Vasilevskiy. Victor Hedman; The MVP. Rocket Richard winner. Vezina mainstay. Perennial Norris favorite. 

That quartet of stars is the beating heart of the Lightning, standing as the hallmark of what may end up being the NHL's first dynasty of the salary cap era. But Tampa's lineup of Batmen indeed has a Robin.

His name is Ondrej Palat. And he's been here the whole time. 

Palat's understated playing style and more famous teammates have allowed him to fly largely under the radar over the years. He's the type of player no one seemingly just thinks of unprompted, but always goes "Oh yeah, that guy is good!" whenever he's brought up in conversation. 

It's understandable, really. Palat has reached the 20-goal mark just once in his 10-year NHL career, with that 23-tally campaign coming nearly a decade ago as a 22-year-old sophomore. 

But Palat's lack of boxscore pizzazz fails to tell even an abridged version of the story. The veteran has become an undeniably crucial piece in the well-oiled machine that is the Lightning. He's simply integral to their success. And Palat's performance through these playoffs thus far, which features seven goals and 13 points in 15 games played along with a 51.78 and 53.16 percent expected goals and scoring chance share, respectively, has demonstrated precisely that and is a big reason why Tampa sits just six wins away from a third straight Stanley Cup. 

Palat does the grunt work. He changes the Batmobile's oil, re-stocks the utility belts, and picks up Bruce Wayne's drycleaning. No one grows up pretending to be Robin. He's the Boy Wonder, after all. But without him, Batman is not so much a symbol of justice and more an angsty guy doing karate in a cave.

And without Palat, Tampa's snipers have little with which to shoot; their defenders too much to defend; their netminder too much to stop. 

"We have seen this for years. He is the quiet kid. He doesn't say anything. All he does is give you everything he has on every shift," raved Lightning coach Jon Cooper after Game 3. 

"He’s got that ability to play that blue-collar game with white-collar players, and that’s a great trait to have."

Palat has spent the playoffs almost exclusively alongside arguably the two whitest collars the Lightning have: Stamkos and Kucherov. 

When deployed as a trio at even-strength, each member of that line tilts the ice noticeably in Tampa's favor, individually posting positive results in corsi-for, expected goal share, and scoring chance share, respectively. 

Split up, however, and those numbers dwindle dramatically, with Stamkos and Kucherov's dipping below 50 percent in all three metrics without Palat on their wing, while Palat's expected goal and scoring chance results remain relatively unchanged. 

That level of production from a secondary scorer has been even more integral to the Lightning's burgeoning title defense than ever before -- particularly due to how little they've gotten elsewhere in their lineup. 

Through the postseason thus far, a large chunk of Tampa Bay's depth forwards have failed to find the scoresheet at the rate expected of them. Alex Killorn is still goalless over halfway through the third round. Brandon Hagel, who cost two first-round picks at the trade deadline, has just one goal of his own to go with three assists. Anthony Cirelli's transition into one of the more effective matchup busters in the playoffs has resulted in his offensive production dipping to just one goal and four assists. 

That sudden lack of offensive insulation would normally leave a team remarkably exposed to the unforgiving grind of the playoffs -- even one as talented and experienced as Tampa. But it hasn't. Not yet, at least, thanks in part to the likes of Palat stepping up to shoulder a far heavier load that, in turn, enables the Lightning's stars to thrive in the process. 

While Palat isn't exactly an unknown, it still took him two Cup runs for his value to truly shine through more than halfway through his third. The 2022 postseason has been something of a coming-out party, funnily enough, arriving just in time for Palat to hit the free-agent market later this summer. 

Someone is going to pay this man a lot of money when the signing period opens. Perhaps it'll be the Lightning, cap gymnastic be damned. But if not, they have certainly learned to cherish him for the little time their partnership has left. 

Finally, Robin is getting his due. 

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