TAMPA, Fla. — Ondrej Palat’s role in the success of the Tampa Bay Lightning doesn’t garner a lot of attention.
However the star-laden, two-time defending Stanley Cup champions reject the notion that he’s not one of their top players.
A quiet, reserved forward who’s part of the core of a team that’s in the Eastern Conference final for the sixth time in eight years, the native of the Czech Republic has a knack for rising to the occasion when the Lightning need it most.
The 31-year-old’s goal with 42 seconds remaining in Game 3 beat the New York Rangers 3-2 and trimmed Tampa Bay’s deficit to 2-1 in the best-of-seven series that continues Tuesday night at Amalie Arena.
It was the 10th playoff game-winning goal of Palat’s career, breaking the franchise record he previously shared with Tyler Johnson. The only active NHL players with more are Joe Pavelski (14), Evgeni Malkin (13), Jonathan Toews (11) and Patrick Kane (11).
Peruse the Lightning roster and you’ll find bigger names in Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Ryan McDonagh and Corey Perry. However Palat repeatedly has proved his worth to the Lightning over the past decade.
“We’ve seen this for years. He is a great kid. He doesn’t say anything. All he does is give you everything he has on every shift,” coach Jon Cooper said.
“He’s played up and down the lineup, but he’s got the ability to play that blue collar game with white collar players and that’s a great trait to have,” Cooper added. “He’s been doing it … and he’s usually the third guy talked about on the lines he plays on. But he comes through.”
In a game where Kucherov became the first Tampa Bay player to reach 50 postseason goals, Palat scored his 43rd off a slick backhand pass from his more heralded teammate, who also had an assist on Stamkos’ tying goal early in the third period.
Kucherov, Stamkos and Palat, who increased his point total to 83 in 129 playoff games, share the team lead in goals this postseason with six.
“After the second period, we were pretty calm in the room and we know we were playing pretty good 5-on-5 and we just wanted to keep going, shoot the puck and eventually we knew we’re going to score, and we did,” said Palat, who beat Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin from the low right circle.
“He’s a great goalie, and the first two games we didn’t shoot enough,” Palat said. “So the message was, we need to shoot more. We need to get in front of his eyes a little bit more, and I think we did that.”
The Lightning outshot the Rangers 52-30, playing with a sense of desperation after losing the first two games of the series on the road.
Cooper said it would be a mistake, though, to assume winning Game 3 has turned the series around.
The Rangers still hold a 2-1 lead and a win Tuesday night would move them within one victory of their first trip to the Stanley Cup Final since 2014.
“That game had overtime probably written all over it,” and who knows what happens then,” Cooper said.
New York has a pretty good idea of how the Lightning are feeling heading into Game 4.
The Rangers rallied from a 3-1 deficit to eliminate the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round. They lost the first two games to Carolina and trailed 3-2 before rebounding to oust the Hurricanes in seven games to reach the East final.
“You’ve got to get ready one game at a time,” Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said, confident his team will be bounce back.
Gallant shrugged off a question about whether New York could draw on anything from its experience the past two rounds to prevent the Lightning from storming all the way back against the Rangers.
“You’d like to, but Tampa’s a good team. They were down 2-0 coming home, so we knew they were going to bring their best game, and they did. They competed real hard. They had 50 shots. They won a lot of loose puck battles and played a gritty game,” Gallant said.
“We still had an opportunity to win that game, but we didn’t,” the New York coach added. “Again, we know they’re not going to give you anything for nothing. They’ve won, what, 10 series in a row? We’re going to have to be a real good team and take it from them.”