It’s reasonably safe to assume that Ondrej Palat will not win the Rocket Richard Trophy this season. Heck, there’s a good chance he won’t even lead his own team in goals. It’s true that they don’t ask how, they ask how many. But in Palat’s case perhaps we shouldn’t be asking how many, but how important.
The Tampa Bay Lightning winger has nine goals, which puts him outside the top 25 in the NHL, but there has not been a more clutch goal-scorer in the NHL this season than Palat. Of his nine goals this season, a remarkable eight of them have not only put the Lightning ahead in the game, but they’ve put them in the lead to stay. Only Cam Atkinson of the Columbus Blue Jackets has as many goals as Palat does when the game is tied this season. Six of his goals have been the all-important first goal of the game and overall, the Lightning are 8-1-0 when Palat scores a goal. Palat has scored just one inconsequential goal this season, the Lightning’s second goal of the game in a 5-2 loss to Columbus in late January.
When the Lightning lost Nikita Kucherov for the season, Palat stepped into his spot on the first power-play unit and has delivered in a big way with six goals, the latest coming Tuesday night when he scored with the extra man to give the Lightning a 1-0 lead over the Dallas Stars in a game they would go on to win 2-0. Five of those six power-play goals have put the Lightning ahead in the game for good.
“It’s a new spot for me,” Palat said after the Dallas game. “I’m just trying to do the right play. When it’s time to shoot, shoot. When it’s time to pass, pass. Hopefully, I can help the power play produce.”
With the Lightning having the league’s third-best power play, it’s safe to say that Palat has adequately replaced Kucherov in the spot. It also helps that Victor Hedman is often the one putting the puck in Palat’s wheelhouse and that, even though his shots and shot attempts are about the same as they are in typical seasons, his 24.3 percent shooting percentage is way above the norm. Another factor is having Steven Stamkos on the same power play. As long as Stamkos is a threat to shoot, it opens up room for Palat.
But there’s something else at play here. Palat was a seventh-round pick in 2011. In fact, only four players were chosen after he was taken 208th that year. (That was the same draft the Lightning got Kucherov 58th overall. Still wondering why the Lightning are so darn good?) Despite that, only nine players from that draft year have outscored him in the NHL. Palat worked his way up from the minors along with Lightning coach Jon Cooper, who trusts Palat completely. And Palat has been diligent about shoring up the weaknesses in his game to the point where he has earned the opportunity to be in those situations to score big goals. A couple of years ago, the Lightning told Palat to work on getting faster and he did that, which puts him in a better position to score. And the most recent four goals Palat has scored on the power play have come on one-timers from the right circle.
“He works at it,” Cooper said. “We’ve asked him to do a lot of different things, especially with ‘Kuch’ out of the lineup. Do we expect the one-timer to go in all the time? No. But you’ve still got to be a threat and the more they go in for him, the more defenses have to play to him. He’s scoring goals that are unconventional for him, but it helps us.”
And more importantly, he’s scoring them at crucial times in the game, which is exactly what you need your power play to do if you want to be a successful team in the NHL. And Cooper thinks there’s a correlation between Palat’s work ethic and his penchant for coming up big at crucial times, going back to his days on the ‘Triplets Line’ with Kucherov and Tyler Johnson.
“He was kind of the guy who wasn’t noticed, kind of the third guy on the line,” Cooper said of Palat. “But if you ask the players, he was the guy who drove the line. Then you fast-forward to this past playoff and ‘Kuch’ and ‘Pointer’ were phenomenal, but I don’t know if it works without Palat there. He’s always, always showed up at big moments and at big times for us.”