ESTERO — Heading into training camp, the Lightning roster held only a few vacancy signs for forwards.
Might three spots actually be taken by one line?
During the past two seasons, the line of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Richard Panik helped carry the Lightning’s affiliate in the American Hockey League to consecutive Calder Cup championship appearances, including a win in 2012.
That success led to all three receiving their first NHL experience last season, with all three scoring their first goals.
The question now: Can the trio continue the chemistry and remain successful in the NHL?
“They play well together, they understand one another, they are good defensively, so it just seems like kind of a simple transition here,’’ Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said. “They are all good players and (coach Jon Cooper) will ultimately decide where guys play, but we know we have three guys who have good chemistry and work well at both ends of the rink. I think they will do that at the NHL level, as well.’’
Last season, Johnson was the MVP of the AHL after leading the league with 37 goals, while Palat was the top scorer in the playoffs with 26 points in 18 games. Panik, despite a 25-game call-up to the Lightning, finished third on the AHL Syracuse Crunch with 22 goals in 55 games.
The three comprise one unit despite coming from different backgrounds. Panik was a skilled second-round pick in 2009, Palat an over-age late-round pick in 2011 and Johnson an undrafted free agent from Spokane, Wash. For whatever reason, the three just work well together.
“Our styles just seem to fit each other,’’ Johnson said. “We are all creative, we like to play with speed and we add a little different thing from each one of us to help out the line. We just have that chemistry. We have a friendship on and off the ice; I think that goes a long way.’’
Cooper first put the line together midway through the 2011-12 season in Norfolk, but at the start of training camp this year the three were not in the same group, with Palat working on a different line.
But starting with the second scrimmage session, Cooper reunited the line and it has been together since. It has played in three preseason games, including Thursday’s game against Florida at Germain Arena. Since being put back together, it’s been business as usual for the trio, which has combined for four goals and seven points after Johnson scored and Palat got an assist Thursday.
“You split them up and they are good hockey players and they still do well,” Cooper said. “But when they are together, there is just something about them and some sort of magic kicks in. They can do some pretty special things.’’
It was not exactly an overnight sensation.
Panik and Palat were healthy scratches for much of the first half of the 2011-12 season and played up and down the lineup when they got on the ice. But by halfway through the season, all three were regulars in the lineup and as a line.
Soon afterward, the AHL team went on a record 28-game win streak.
“Gradually you get a feel for your team, who can fit together,’’ Cooper said. “Coincidentally, it was not too long before the streak happened that that group was put together.’’