NEW YORK — Under the bright lights in the big city, the Tampa Bay Lightning got a gigantic performance from their smallest player.
Tyler Johnson continued his stellar Stanley Cup playoffs with a hat trick in Game 2 Monday night as the Lightning routed the New York Rangers 6-2 to even the Eastern Conference final at a game apiece.
The five-foot-eight dynamo scored short-handed, on the power play and at even strength for the first hat trick in franchise history. Johnson improved his playoff-leading goal total to 11 and became the first player in the NHL with four multi-goal playoff games in the same season since Jamie Langenbrunner in 2003.
"Oh, Tyler Johnson, the bigger the game, the better he plays," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "In the greatest league in the world on the biggest stage, in the world’s most famous arena, it’s pretty impressive. It doesn’t get any bigger than that."
Johnson scored Tampa Bay’s first three goals in the convincing victory, followed by two from Alex Killorn and one by Steven Stamkos. In a game that lacked flow thanks to 13 minor penalties and just 46 minutes of five-on-five play, Johnson was the catalyst in sending the Lightning home happy for Game 3 Wednesday night at Amalie Arena.
"It seems like he was leading the way tonight and we were kind of following," said Killorn, who finished with three points. "When you have a guy that can turn it up a notch like that, it’s huge."
Johnson’s game-winner was his fourth of the playoffs, and the Lightning know they wouldn’t be into the third round without him and "Triplets" linemates Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov. Cooper made sure to credit Palat for his strong game getting the puck into the offensive zone and in spots to score.
But Game 2 was another showcase for Johnson, the undrafted 24-year-old who went through the Western Hockey League with the Spokane Chiefs and then to the American Hockey League with the Norfolk Admirals without much fanfare.
Johnson was a Calder Trophy finalist last season as a rookie and broke out with 72 points this year. These playoffs have been a chance for fans around the NHL to appreciate his journey and his play.
"I think every morning I’m just happy to be here and I’m living my dream," Johnson said. "So that’s what’s driving me is to try to be the best I can and play for my family. They sacrificed so much for me to be here, and I’m living my dream, so I want to keep living it as long as possible."
Johnson and the Lightning will keep living it now knowing they can hang with the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Rangers. After a Game 1 performance that made Cooper "want to vomit," his team responded to tie the series.
"The mind-set was a little different, for whatever reason," Stamkos said. "We weren’t there mentally, physically, we didn’t compete. When this group competes, we talk about it all year, we have the skill and the speed to do anything if we’re willing to compete."
The Rangers competed early on and tried to make a game of it with goals by Chris Kreider and Derek Stepan. But Johnson busted the dam open on the way to Henrik Lundqvist’s first game allowing more than three goals against in these playoffs.
"It’s embarrassing," Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh said. "Our guys better figure it out quickly here and realize that stupid, selfish penalties are going to cost us against this team."
Martin St. Louis fell on a five-on-three power play, leading to Johnson’s short-handed goal, and Stepan took a tripping penalty that allowed Johnson to score on the power play.
Then Johnson crashed the net and scored on a second effort at even strength, getting his stick on a loose puck in the crease to complete the hat trick.
"Without a doubt he took his game to another level tonight," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. "We need our top guys to do the same thing."
Johnson would need at least a long conference final if not a trip to the Cup final to approach the playoff record of 19 held by Reggie Leach (1976 Philadelphia Flyers) and Jari Kurri (1985 Edmonton Oilers), but it’s in reach.
"I’m just playing with good players," Johnson said. "I’ve been fortunate to have a great team, great line that have been kind of finding me and I’ve been getting some bounces like tonight. So it’s been great."