Lightning coach Jon Cooper clearly recalls the first time he saw winger Ondrej Palat.
Cooper was coaching Tampa Bay’s American Hockey League partner in Norfolk, Virginia when he had to decide what to do with the quiet Czech boy, who was passed over in his freshman year of draft eligibility and in the seventh round of Lightning was selected (208th overall) in 2011.
At this stage of the design, teams are looking for warm bodies and don’t expect much. Palat was different. He was noticed immediately. Cooper was intrigued.
“We thought, ‘There’s something about this kid. Let’s keep him, don’t send him back to the junior division. We’re going to play it, but let’s get our hands on it and see what we can do,” Cooper recalled.
Cooper occasionally dropped him from the lineup. Palat keeps reminding him of that now, but Cooper doesn’t mind. “When we brought him in, you see what we saw in him today,” Cooper said.
The hockey world sees a clutch scorer, a versatile and intelligent player who steps up his game when the stakes are highest. He was overlooked in his draft year and overshadowed in the Blitz’s two previous Stanley Cup runs by Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point, but Palat was a star among stars in the playoffs.
With the 12th game-winning playoff goal of his career, a shot from a knee between the faceoff circles that defeated Colorado goaltender Darcy Kuemper 6-22 in Friday’s third period at Ball Arena, he allowed the Lightning to end the game to extend the cup final to a sixth game. Instead of going home for the summer, they return to the Amalie Arena and have a chance on Sunday to continue their quest for a third consecutive cup championship. If they win at home, where they are 8-2 in this playoff, the trophy will be decided in Denver on Tuesday.
In a line of high profile players who were already drafted No. 1 or were considered solid prospects before becoming superstars, it’s refreshing to see the guy drafted at No. 208 make a meaningful impact.
“He scores a lot of big goals in the playoffs this time. It’s quite remarkable,” said Steven Stamkos, who centers the top line of the blitz for Palat and Nikita Kucherov. “We always joke with Pally that he just finds a way. Sneaky P found a way to incorporate one.”
His feats can no longer be considered sneaky. Palat scored eleven goals in the 2020 Lightning’s Cup, three of which were winning goals. He only scored five goals in the 2021 repeat, but two of those were crucial goals. After 18 goals and 49 points in 77 regular-season games in 2021-22, he had 11 goals in 22 playoff games — three of which were winning goals.
“He’s going on. He’s a player. He finds a way every night,” said Lightning fourth-line winger Pat Maroon. “He plays right, he plays hard, he goes into the dirty areas and he’s rewarded. If you do, you’ll be rewarded for working hard for 200 feet and every inch of the game. He’s a player.” There’s no greater compliment than that.
Palat was never motivated to prove the teams that ignored him wrong. “When I got drafted and first went into the NHL, I was just trying to work hard,” he said. “Play every game the same way and stay in the NHL and yes it’s worked so far.”
Deflecting praise for Friday’s winning goal, he said defender Victor Hedman deserves credit for finding him when he tried to open up. “It was just an easy shot for me,” Palat said. “I’m only trying it once and luckily it went in.”
Reaching this point takes luck, talent and perseverance. Both teams have struggled through injuries; Point has been in and out of the lineup and was out on Friday, and Colorado winger Andre Burakovsky, who scored the overtime winner in Game 1, has missed three straight games after getting hit in the hand in Game 2. Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said before the team traveled to Tampa on Saturday, Burakovsky is a Game 6 possibility.
Bednar said he thought his team played hard on Friday but gave up too much defensively and took some unnecessary penalties. That included the penalty for too many men on the ice, which they took at 2:43 in the third period, preventing them from making a late push. “But overall a pretty good hockey game from our group, we gave ourselves a chance to win, didn’t make it, now we have to go out on the street and win a big game,” Bednar said.
The Avalanche didn’t play on the urgency or poignancy like Friday’s Lightning. Another incomplete performance from Colorado will likely result in a Game 7 that’s always unpredictable. “Certainly Tampa brought it,” Bednar said Friday. “We’ve seen how it’s progressed with both teams over the course of the series and there’s still a lot of hockey to play.”
The Lightning can thank Sneaky P for giving them a chance to play again on Sunday and maybe beyond. To the seven-round picks that become top-tier players.
https://www.latimes.com/sports/hockey/story/2022-06-25/ondrej-palat-lightning-avalanche-stanley-cup-nhl Ondrej Palat becoming quite the Stanley Cup hero for Lightning