Ondrej Palat's third-period goal in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final was belatedly credited to Nikita Kucherov, a microcosm of their working relationship. Neither player was fighting over whose goal it was as Palat is well-adjusted to Kucherov and their other superstar linemate Brayden Point taking the spotlight, but he was a key component of their 5-1 victory.
Palat does all the little things right for the Lightning, rarely makes mistakes, is relentlessly competitive and an elite puck-retrieval specialist. Some will argue that Boston's "Perfection Line" of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak or Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen are greater collections of talent than Tampa's nominal top line, but in the postseason, there isn't a more dangerous combination than the Lightning's top three. Palat may not have the archetypical profile of a star, but he's no passenger alongside two premier talents. He's a pain in the ass that the Canadiens will need to sorely figure out, and quickly.
Partly due to the fact that he's the third-best playmaker on his own line, Palat's offensive skills are still underrated, but he was in top gear on Monday night. Take the first goal for example. After Point cut to the center of the ice to disrupt a poorly-timed pass from Cole Caufield, Palat immediately saw the opportunity in front of him and executed a perfect give-and-go with Erik Cernak, who uncharacteristically entered the rush for his first postseason goal.
This part isn't readily apparent on first glance — at least it wasn't to me, anyways — but Palat took a massive hit from Ben Chiarot while completing the assist to Cernak. It would be easy to insert some trite cliché about the war of attrition in the playoffs, but Palat's willingness to sacrifice his body to set up others is a quality that separates him from many of his peers. Palat threw three hits of his own, and as usual was excellent at initiating the low cycle with Kucherov and Point, as the Canadiens struggled to contain them in Game 1.
Palat led all Lightning players with four individual scoring chances in Game 1, while posting superior Corsi for and expected goals for splits, according to Natural Stat Trick. He's not an offensive slouch and was on pace for a 22-goal season over an 82-game campaign. During the regular season, Palat had the same number of individual scoring chances as Blues leading scorer David Perron (83), and one more than Marchand at 5-on-5, for comparison. Playing with Kucherov and Point ensures that Palat doesn't have to dictate the offense; he can facilitate by winning puck battles and constantly making smart plays that don't necessarily translate to the scoresheet.
Although Palat swung and missed the puck on Kucherov's first goal, driving the net and attempting to make a play on the puck served as a distraction for Chiarot and Carey Price. Does the puck even go in if Palat isn't driving the net? It seems unlikely.
No one's going to mistake Palat for Kucherov and Point, but that misses the point (no pun intended) entirely. He does all the small things well for a juggernaut Lightning team that will rightly be considered the next dynasty of the salary cap era if they can get three more wins against a stingy Canadiens team.
Selected in the seventh round of the 2011 draft, Palat has been a core component of the Lightning, through heartbreak against the Blackhawks in 2015 and in 2019 against the Blue Jackets before finally breaking through to lift the Cup against the Stars last summer. When it comes time to reflect on this iteration, Kucherov, Point, Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Andrei Vasilevskiy and Ryan McDonagh will be remembered in some order, and rightfully so.
Palat is the type of player you need to win a Stanley Cup, let alone repeat, as he will continue to play his unique, complete game against the upstart Canadiens.
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