TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — If this is Ondrej Palat’s final playoff run with the Tampa Bay Lightning, he’s certainly making it count.
Soon he could be counting in the tens of millions of dollars on a new contract.
A pending free agent with a knack for scoring big goals to go along with elite defensive prowess, Palat scored another big goal Friday night to keep the two-time defending champion Lightning alive in the Stanley Cup Final against the Colorado Avalanche. He leads the NHL with eight game-winning goals sine the start of the 2020 playoffs.
“He’s a special kid and a special player,” coach Jon Cooper said. “He’s a great complement to skill players, to checkers — wherever you need him. 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.”
Cooper basically wrote the sales pitch to the rest of the league on behalf of Palat, the 31-year-old Czech winger who could be latest Lightning player to get squeezed by the salary cap and hit the open market.
Even at his age, Palat figures to get a raise from his current $5.3 million cap hit because he delivers at important moments just like any contender would want out of a free agent.
“He’s not scared to step up in big moments,” said linemate Nick Paul, a trade deadline pickup by the Lightning who also could strike it rich in free agency. “He’s shown that time and time again. When you’ve got a team and you’ve got a lot of people ready to stand up and take the opportunity, it’s huge.”
Palat values the opportunity in front of him more in the present than what he faces this summer. One option is re-signing with the Lightning.
“It’s in my head,” Palat said before the series began. “But I’m just focused on the final, and then there’s a time for the next step.”
The Lightning took the step from also-ran to title contender many years ago with Palat as part of their core. He was part of the famed “Triplets” line with Nikita Kucherov and Tyler Johnson when Tampa Bay reached the Cup final in 2015 and has been a prominent part of the team’s success through six trips to the Eastern Conference final and two championships so far.
Cooper, the only professional coach Palat has had in North America, doesn’t think the twice-undrafted, almost Mr. Irrelevant seventh-round pick gets enough credit for what he brings.
“He’s always the third guy talked about on this line,” Cooper said of Palat playing with Brayden Point and Kucherov. “But if you ask the other two players on his line, they would talk about him maybe the most.”
That’s true because Palat is often the one who gets the puck back for skilled linemates and clears the way for them to skate to the net. Paul praised him for what he delivers off the ice, and Kucherov knows well everything Palat delivers this time of year.
“It seems like he likes these big-time moments and he plays extremely well under pressure,” Kucherov said. “You see it in past playoffs and these playoffs, so very happy to have him as a teammate, that’s for sure.”
Even if it’s not for much longer, the Lightning are glad to have the player captain Steven Stamkos referred to as “Sneaky P” contributing to another long run.
“He’s a gamer,” three-time champion Patrick Maroon said. “He finds a way every single night. He plays the right way, he plays hard, he gets into the dirty areas and he gets rewarded. When you do that, you’re going to get rewarded when you work hard for 200 feet and every inch of the game. He’s a player.”
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/hub/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports