Once again the Lightning’s backs were to the wall, and once again Ondrej Palat bought them some breathing room. Palat’s team-leading 11th goal of the postseason and seventh in third periods, a booming one-timer off a Victor Hedman pass with 6:22 left, broke a tie and capped a must-have road win for Tampa. The series is still 3-2 Avalanche, but the two-time defending Cup champs are still alive and will be as long as Palat is making magic. Or at least putting himself in the right place at the right time.
Creating space to shoot is everything, and there are a few ways to do it. Colorado prefers to make its mismatches with its speed in transition. Tampa, as they would on the winner, prefers to cycle the puck around and draw defenders out of position. But keep an eye on Palat, No. 18, in the lead-up to his goal; his method for finding space here is decidedly unsexy. He starts the play posted up in front of the net, with Cale Makar glued to his backside. And then, as the Bolts ping the puck around outside, Palat just sort of drifts. Slowly. Unprepossessingly. No sudden movements. That’s on purpose. He “tried to get lost,” as he put it after the game—tried to convince Makar and any high Avalanche defenders that he was gassed or a decoy or a screen or just less dangerous than the other white jerseys. When Hedman took a pass low, Makar bit, Palat was open, and that’s how you get a goal.
If you watch closely, you can see the order of who realizes what’s happening. First is Palat, as he raises his stick high to grab Hedman’s attention. Then Hedman, who feints, mostly with his eyes, toward the net, to firm up his passing lane. Then finally Makar, who remembers Palat and gives a glance over his shoulder to see if anyone picked him up. No one had.
“Just an easy shot for me,” said Palat, and it was, for anyone. It’s the getting-there that the man nicknamed Sneaky P by his teammates seems to excel at. “He gets to those dirty areas,” Pat Maroon marveled, “and he gets rewarded.”
It would have been generous to call the now-31-year-old Czech winger unheralded: Palat was a 208th overall draft pick, out of 211 players. But he shined immediately, making the all-rookie team in 2014 and getting nominated for the Calder, though he lost out to Nathan MacKinnon. The following year the high-powered Triplets Line was born, and it would mark the first of eight straight years where Palat, never discussed as a star in this league, would be a vital part of one of hockey’s most dangerous trios.
For many years that was alongside Nikita Kucherov and Tyler Johnson; after Johnson departed, Brayden Point joined; when Point was injured this postseason, Steven Stamkos centered it. That’s some talent. “But,” as Lightning Jon Cooper pointed out, “the common denominator in all of these [lines] has been Ondrej Palat.”
“All I can say about Palat is he plays with some of the best players in the world every year and he’s always the third guy talked about on this line, but if you ask the other two players on his line, they would talk about him maybe the most,” Cooper said. “He just does his job. And he gets rewarded for it because of his effort. And everybody in that room knows how much Palat has brought to this organization, and I feel like every year in the playoffs I have the same conversation about Ondrej Palat.”
Yes, it’s conducive to success to have players like Kucherov and Hedman and Stamkos drawing defenses’ attention and creating chances with a level of puck movement that’s part clockwork and part symphony. But lots of guys skate with great players; lots of guys do not do Ondrej Palat things with their chances. Do not sneeze at finishing, or the work that needs to be done to get into position to finish. “Right place, right time” isn’t luck. Palat’s shown it time and time again these playoffs, none more representative than his dashing on net just in time to take Kucherov’s ridiculous drop pass in Game 3 against the Rangers, a highlight that could credibly be used to support the existence of telepathy.
Tampa should savor these Palat moments, because they are finite. He’s a free agent this summer and the Lightning are up against yet another cap crunch, and though they’ve been able to get creative in the past, there’s a good chance he won’t be back. Every night could be his last in blue and white. By doing what he’s done so finely all these years, Palat made sure there’ll be at least one more.