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Thursday, Apr 19, 2018
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Martin Fennelly Columns

Fennelly: Lightning’s kids more than all right

TAMPA — All season long, we’ve waited for the Lightning rookie wonders to hit the wall.

Surely, forwards Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat couldn’t hold up, all that pressure from having to help pick up the scoring slack after Steven Stamkos’ broken leg. Then it was how Johnson and Palat would manage after their linemate, the great Marty St. Louis, was shipped to New York.

The kids are all right.

Johnson and Palat, Johnny and Pally, are great friends. Johnson is 23. Palat turned 23 on Friday. They live next to each other in downtown Tampa.

“We wanted to be close,” Palat said.

They arrive at the Forum together. They room on road trips. They’re a big reason the Lightning are playoff-bound.

“They saw the door open a little bit for themselves,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “They didn’t tiptoe. They barged though.”

Palat is second in the NHL among rookie scorers. He has 19 goals and 32 assists and leads the Bolts with a plus-27 rating. Johnson, a plus-19, is third in rookie scoring and second in rookie goals with 22, trailing only Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon, who was the first overall pick in the last NHL draft.

MacKinnon appears a pre-hyped front-runner to take the Calder Trophy for the league’s top rookie. I’ll take Palat’s all-round game. Palat, a seventh-round Lightning draft pick, and Johnson, who went undrafted, are definitely in the Calder mix. They’ve been sensational. And they’ve held up.

Cooper said, “I don’t know if people are going to put those guys up in the conversation for the rookie of the year award, but I’ll be really hard-pressed not to see those two names up there for what they’ve done for us in a situation where we were missing players and we needed guys to step up. Those guys stepped up.”

“It’s obviously a great honor, just to be recognized, but at the same time I couldn’t be even close to being mentioned if I wasn’t on a team like this, players and coaches helping me out,” Johnson said.

“It’s great to be battling for that trophy, but that’s not the focus. It’s the team,” Palat said.

There’s a good chance Johnson and Palat will split Calder votes. That’s fine by Palat.

“We’ve done everything together, we’ve come up together, built our games together,” he said.

Palat has five multi-point nights in the past 10 games, as the Bolts have gained at least a point in all 10. Johnson is a goal shy of tying Stamkos’ Lightning rookie record of 23. They’re rookie dynamos on a team filled with rookie contributions from all over.

They played in the minors together for two seasons, on the same line, Norfolk one year, Syracuse the next, coached by Cooper. Think that hasn’t helped the transition to the NHL? Cooper joined the Bolts a year ago. Johnson and Palat were called up shortly before that.

Cooper grew winners on the farm. Two years ago, Johnson and Palat helped Norfolk to a record 28-game winning streak and a Calder Cup championship. Those experiences can’t hurt come the NHL postseason.

“Wherever we were, we were winning,” said Palat, the 208th pick in the 2011 draft.

“Pally is a great player,” Johnson said. “I love playing with him. Both of us are pretty happy with our seasons. But it’s not over. Numbers are just numbers.”

With Stamkos’ return, Johnson and Palat were put on separate lines for the first time in a couple of years, going back to Norfolk. They’ve delivered just the same.

“They’re hole fillers,” Cooper said. “Coach needs help? Go get Johnson or Palat. They’ll fix your problem for you.”

They were there after Stamkos went down. They’re producing without Marty.

They live next to each other, in Tampa and on the rookie scoring table. It will probably be that way come Calder time.

Hey, they wanted to be close.

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