“I’m extremely happy for the win,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “I might be a little happier for Tyler Johnson.”
Johnson, Tampa Bay’s fourth-line center, scored two goals, doubling his total from the first 20 games of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, in a 6-3 win against the Montreal Canadiens at Bell Centre on Friday to give the Lightning a 3-0 lead in the best-of-7 Final.
Tampa Bay can repeat as Stanley Cup champions with a victory in Game 4 at Montreal on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, SN, TVAS).
Cooper’s comments speak to the respect the Lightning players and coaches have for Johnson, admiration that has grown through this season and the playoffs.
“He’s that type of player that likes to play under pressure,” forward Nikita Kucherov said, “and he’s been huge for us.”
That wouldn’t be the case if another team had been interested in Johnson on two separate occasions prior to the start of the season.
He was placed on waivers by Tampa Bay on Oct. 10, when the NHL free agent signing period opened, and again on Jan. 11, before the opening of the regular season, shortened to 56 games because of concerns surrounding the coronavirus.
The Lightning were trying to figure out their salary cap situation and were willing to part with Johnson and his $5 million cap charge to gain some relief.
He went unclaimed each time.
“I think ‘Johnny’ handled the situation really well,” forward Pat Maroon said. “A lot of guys could have been [angry] and took it a lot differently. He manned up.”
Johnson had to miss the first game of the season on the taxi squad because of salary cap restraints. He played the next 55 games, but averaged 0.40 points per game (22 points; eight goals, 14 assists), a career low in his eight NHL seasons. Johnson scored four points (two goals, two assists) in the first 20 games of the playoffs, an average of 0.20 points per game.
It has been a major role change for a player who had been an integral part of Tampa Bay’s core since 2013-14, the center on the famed ‘Triplets Line’ with Kucherov and Ondrej Palat that helped them reach the Stanley Cup Final in 2015, getting to Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Final in 2016 and 2018, and winning the Cup last season.
But nobody could question Johnson’s effectiveness in these playoffs, not before Game 3 and certainly not after his two goals in that win.
“During this playoff run he’s been playing his best hockey,” Maroon said. “He’s taken the role on playing center on the fourth line and he’s been a really good leader in the locker room.”
Johnson won’t take credit for his role in the Lightning’s success.
“Playing with good players,” he said after Game 3. “Playing with good players and we’re having fun with it.”
He played primarily at center on the fourth line with Maroon and rookie Ross Colton until Game 2, when Cooper moved Johnson up to left wing on the second line with Anthony Cirelli and Steven Stamkos because Alex Killorn had to miss the game with an undisclosed injury.
Johnson played on the wing for the entire playoff run last year.
“But when I can get him back in the middle it’s best for him and our team,” Cooper said.
So Cooper adjusted the lines for Game 3 and put Johnson back on the fourth line to center Mathieu Joseph and Maroon, and moved Colton up to play with Stamkos and Cirelli.
Johnson played 9:08 as a center in Game 3 after playing 15:28 as a left wing in Game 2, a move Cooper was happy he made.
“Putting him on the wing the other night, I knew his minutes were going to go up, but I just didn’t feel he’d be the same Tyler Johnson as when he’s playing center,” Cooper said. “He understands his minutes are going to go down if he’s playing where he is, but success will follow. … Good guys get rewarded.”
Monday could be Johnson’s final game in a Lightning jersey. Tampa Bay will have to make sacrifices to be salary cap compliant next season. The 30-year-old, signed through 2022-23 at $5 million per season, may be one of them.
The Lightning could leave him unprotected in the expansion draft; if he’s selected by the Seattle Kraken, Johnson, born in Spokane, Washington, would become a hometown fan favorite for the NHL’s 32nd team when it begins play next season.
Or he could be traded, waived again, claimed or relegated to the American Hockey League.
None of that matters now. All that does is for another 60 minutes, if not longer, Johnson to remain a major factor for Tampa Bay, as he has been for a long time.
“There was a time in this organization when we needed to take another step and Tyler Johnson was one of the leaders of that, and he’s just carried that on for years now,” Cooper said. “Teams change and they evolve. The salary cap, there’s issues. Guys are coming up, but we never lost faith in Tyler Johnson and he never lost faith in himself.
“Roles change and you have to adapt, and nobody has done it better than Tyler.”