NEW YORK — Like “focus” or “experience” or pretty much anything Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault utters this time of year, “depth” is a favorite cliché at rinks come spring. After the Lightning were held to just one goal in Game 1, even Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper—often thoughtful, rarely trite—had to bring up the importance of scoring depth.
“If we want to advance, we’re going to need more than the Triplets [Tampa Bay’s explosive line of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat] to score,” he said Sunday. “Depth is a big thing.”
And as the series between New York and Tampa Bay wears on, sure, it likely will be. But for Game 2, depth was an added bonus. The Lightning really just needed one player: Johnson. Scoring a hat trick before the game was halfway over, the center led the Lightning to a 6–2 win over the Rangers on Monday night at Madison Square Garden.
As he did in the opening round against the Red Wings and then against the Canadiens in the second round, Johnson asserted himself in this Eastern Conference finals with a statement game that tied the series at a game apiece. With 11 goals this postseason, the 24-year-old undrafted center, a player who says he had no NHL role models growing up in Spokane, Wash., now leads the league in playoff goals and points, passing Anaheim’s Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf.
“It’s impressive, especially at this time of year,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “The way he did it tonight … a lot of people talk about that line, but he did it on his own in a couple instances.”
Looking to rebound from a performance that Cooper said sort of made him want to vomit upon rewatching, the Lightning came out with a stronger will in Game 2, the coach said. And though they took four penalties in the first 10:31, including two that gave New York a 5-on-3 advantage for 1:07, they managed to come out with a lead, thanks to Johnson’s shorthanded goal at 5:38. Sprung on an odd-man rush after Rangers winger Martin St. Louis could not handle a puck at his feet, Johnson drove hard at goalie Henrik Lundqvist and was rewarded with a goal.
“For us to take four minors [early] … and not only come out of that even, but to come up with the lead, was a huge momentum swing,” Cooper said. “It gave us a lot of confidence, and we took off from there.”
Tampa Bay’s penalty kill wasn’t perfect, as the Rangers’ Chris Kreider answered with a power-play goal just three minutes later. But that momentum-swinging sequence set the tone of the Lightning’s game. Johnson struck again on a 4-on-3 power play at 11:15, roofing a beautiful shot from the left circle into the top right corner, and then he finished off his hat trick—the first for any Tampa Bay player in a playoff game—following up on a rebound in a battle in Lundqvist’s crease.
It is Johnson’s penchant for driving to the hard areas, for being in the spots that a (generously listed) 5’9”, 182-pound player has no business commanding, that is most impressive. He plays fearlessly, not just for his size, but for any size. And as he has done all season long, Johnson continues to defy expectations.
“Bigger players always have to play themselves off teams; smaller players always have to play themselves on teams,” Cooper said. “[Small players] have to be better than everybody else. You look at a [Calgary’s Johnny] Gaudreau, his hockey sense is off the charts, better than most. That’s why he survives. Tyler Johnson, his speed, his competitiveness—that’s what sets [him] apart.”
What has most set Tampa Bay apart over the last couple weeks has been its spectacular power play, which scored three times Monday night. With the Rangers filing into the penalty box in the third period, the Lightning took advantage and ultimately put the game away, as Stamkos and Alex Killorn gave Tampa goalie Ben Bishop the cushion he seemed to need after a shaky second period. Bishop gave up a power-play goal late in the middle frame, getting caught out of position, and was almost caught again minutes later. His defensemen, namely Victor Hedman, denied a potential tying goal that very well could have changed the complexion of the game.
“All plays are big, especially in a series of this magnitude,” Stamkos said. “At this time of the year you have to be willing to sacrifice your body for the betterment of the team and we have guys that do that.”
While Monday night was largely a special teams battle, won handily by the Lightning, New York will certainly be focused on staying out of the box as the series moves back to Tampa for Game 3 Wednesday. After a game he called “embarrassing,” Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh didn’t mince words. “Our guys better figure it out quickly here and realize that stupid, selfish penalties are going to cost us against this team,” he said. “They have too much skill.”
But even 5-on-5, without the last change, New York may run into matchup issues in Tampa, finding it harder to isolate and key in on the Triplets or Stamkos’s line, which generated Tampa’s other three goals. The offensive firepower that the Lightning have—they led the NHL in scoring this season with 3.16 goals per game—is even more troublesome for the Rangers, who have averaged just two goals per game since the playoffs began.
“[I’m] confident that we’re going to respond the right way,” Vigneault said after the game. “We always have.”