Ondrej 'Sneaky P' Palat seizes another moment, keeps Lightning belief alive

Andrei Vasilevskiy made 35 saves and Ondrej Palat scored the game-winning goal to help the Tampa Bay Lightning to a 3-2 win against the Colorado Avalanche and force a Game 6 in the Stanley Cup Final.

DENVER – They were silent in Denver but whooping it up in Frydek-Mistek.

A Game 5 watch party in support of the Tampa Bay Lightning and their life-support threepeat bid had been planned in the thick of the night at Ondrej Palat’s supportive home city in Czechia.

“My parents just texted me,” said Palat, all smiles after scoring the difference-maker in Tampa’s 3-2 win Friday night. “There was like 80 people there. It was two o'clock in the morning. So, it's nice to feel all the support from back home even when the game is pretty late. So, it just feels great.”

Also feels familiar.

Palat, the seventh-round gamble with first-line impact, has now sniped three game-winners this post-season and 12 career winners in playoffs, third-most among all active NHLers.

Pat Maroon can only chuckle at his teammate’s ability to come up clutch.

“Yeah, keeps doing it. I mean, he's a gamer. He finds a way every single night. He plays the right way. He plays hard and gets to the dirty areas,” Marron said. “And when you do that, you're gonna get rewarded — when you work hard for 200 feet, every inch of the game.”

Adds linemate Steven Stamkos: “We always joke with Pally that he just finds a way. ‘Sneaky P’ found a way to put one in there. Obviously, a really huge goal for us. We extend the season.”

The Lightning are harder to kill than Steve Seagal, and proved it once again, narrowing the series to 3-2 in a hostile Ball Arena that swelled with hungry “We! Want! The! Cup!” chants.

Unlikely shooter Jan Rutta struck first, with a clean-look, old-school clapper that Colorado Avalanche goalkeeper Darcy Kuemper should’ve had, according to coach Jared Bednar.

But the home side clapped back with yet another Valeri Nichushkin goal, off a rebound.

Nikita Kucherov converted a rare Tampa power-play goal (just its second of the series) on an even rarer 4-on-3 man-advantage, after Palat drew a tripping penalty on Cale Makar.

Again, the Avalanche – owners of nine comeback victories in these playoffs – tied it up, thanks to a Makar shot that bounced around and squeaked through a dialled-in Andrei Vasilevskiy.

Cue the clutch, Sneaky P.

Palat purposely got himself lost in coverage before capping off an O-zone passing sequence with a wicked one-timer that elated those 80 friends and family members in Frydek-Mistek.

Nikita Kucherov describes the winning play as sharply as it unfolded: “Pass to Sergy, Sergy pass to Heddy, Heddy back to Sergy, Sergey pass back to Heddy, Heddy finds Pally, Pally one-time it, and it went in."

“It was just an easy shot for me,” Palat said. “I'm just trying to one-time and lucky enough it went in.”

Luck? Or is there some magic going on with this 31-year-old springtime star?

Palat leads all Lightning with 11 goals this post-season, and his 0.37 career goals per game in the playoffs crushes his 0.23 rate in the regular season.

“He plays with some of the best players in the world every year, and… he’s always the third guy talked about on his line. But if you ask the other two players on his line, they would talk about him maybe the most,” said Jon Cooper, who has been coaching Palat since their days with AHL Norfolk.

“He's a great complement to skill players, to checkers, to 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, and I feel like every year in the playoffs I have the same conversation about Ondrej Palat. It's impressive.

“When you have a player that's played for you this long, he's pretty dear to me. And I'm so glad he's getting the attention he's getting right now.”

Zoom out, and Palat’s heroics were just a function of a full Lightning effort in the most physical and fun 60 minutes this series has supplied so far.

“You’re down in the series, Cup’s in the building. You're in a great environment for the home team. And how do you show gamesmanship? Everything we just did,” Cooper said.

“You get the lead, you defend, you kill off penalties, score on the power play. And then when you need the big goal at the end, you get it.”

Ondrej Palat. Gamer calls game.

“If you look at this series, was it meant to go six or seven? Damn rights, it was,” Cooper concluded.

“It’s two damn good hockey teams here. We’re looking forward to seeing you guys in two nights.”

Fox’s Fast 5

• Tampa shutdown centre Anthony Cirelli, given the monstrous Nathan MacKinnon matchup, was a game-time decision. He played through the pain but was a shadow of his Selke-conversation self.

Cooper chopped Cirelli’s minutes down to 11:46 and replaced him mid-game with Nick Paul on the night’s toughest assignment. Paul rose to the challenge nicely.

• After all the brouhaha over an uncalled too-many-men infraction after Colorado’s Game 4 overtime victory, how ironic was it that the Avalanche got dinged for a too-many-men penalty late in Game 5 as they pushed for the tie?

“That shouldn’t be a story. The refs called the game by the rules,” Cooper replied. “It was fortunate for us, because instead of them having a three-minute goalie pull, they only get 40 seconds.”

• Only three defencemen have posted more points in a single post-season than Cale Makar’s 28 in this one (Paul Coffey, 37 in 1985; Brian Leetch, 34 in 1994; and Al MacInnis, 31 in 1989).

They’re all in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

• A fine bounce-back effort by Mikhail Sergachev after getting burned by Nazem Kadri on the Game 4 winner.

“He was excellent tonight. He defended. He had guys coming at him with speed. He eliminated everybody down low. He won his one-on-one battles. Ultimately, you have to be hard on their good players,” said Cooper.

“Everybody loves playing offence. Of course, he loves doing that. But what do you do without the puck? That’s where he really excelled tonight.”

• Colorado fans were furious at the officials, particularly the penalty on Makar penalty. A couple cans were chucked on the ice in dispute.

Here’s Gabriel Landeskog on the officiating: “I’m not getting into that. it’s something they can continue to do. We’re not doing that.”

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