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Lightning's 'Triplets' add up to one potent line

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CHICAGO -- It was one brief shift in the second period of Game 4, but noteworthy nonetheless, when Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos skated with Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat.

We have become so accustomed to seeing Tampa Bay’s vaunted "Triplets" line -- Palat, Johnson and Nikita Kucherov -- that it’s odd when someone else makes an appearance on that line, even if only for a brief cameo.

That’s because the three players, similar in both size and stature, have combined to form one of the most explosive, dynamic lines in hockey. Johnson, the catalyst of the trio, leads the league with 13 playoff goals (and 23 points even though he has been held to two points in the Cup finals). Kucherov is not far behind, second in both categories with 10 goals and 22 points. Palat has eight goals and 16 points.

The chemistry among them is so fine-tuned that they know each other’s tendencies and can anticipate each movement. They all speak different native languages -- Johnson hails from Spokane, Washington, Palat from Feydek-Mistek, Czech Republic, and Kucherov from Moscow, Russia -- but are bound by the puck that toggles between their sticks.

That is, indeed, the genesis of the nickname.

"It’s weird because they all seem to be on the same wavelength; it’s like they’re triplets," Cooper told reporters back in November. "It seems those three guys are almost thinking for each other, and it’s pretty sweet to watch."

There seems to be almost a sixth sense in how they play as a sort of symbiotic unit. There is also a level of confidence and swagger not often seen for a line of players with their experience level.

In fact, that was the first thing that struck Blackhawks veteran Brad Richards -- their creativity and willingness to put pucks where other people would not.

"They try things that other young guys would be too scared to try," Richards said.

It wasn’t always that way.

Palat said it wasn’t really until last season, when he got the opportunity to play with veteran Martin St. Louis, that he truly felt emboldened to use his skills.

Palat remembered St. Louis sitting next to him on the bench, pumping him with words of encouragement, prodding him to do more.

"He’d say, 'Don’t be scared. You’re skilled enough. You have more time than you think,'" Palat told ESPN.com.

It's easier to believe it when you’re hearing it from someone who, before being traded to the New York Rangers, was with the Lightning's organization for 14 years and already had his name etched on the Stanley Cup.

And Palat found St. Louis to be right.

It clicked, so much so that Cooper said Palat could be used as an example for other players trying to make it at this level.

The 24-year-old, a former seventh-round draft pick (208th overall in 2011) who had a breakout, 59-point season in 2013-14 and followed up with a 63-point campaign this season, is the player Cooper worries about least, especially when it comes to his two-way play.

"Put a camera on him, he can make an instructional video on how to play the game," Cooper said prior to Game 4. "Not always flashy. Not going to show up on the score sheet as often as those other guys will, [but] those other guys will tell you they want you on their line."

Of the three Triplets, Johnson has, in a stunning showing this postseason, garnered the most fanfare with his stellar play.

He has been relatively quiet this series -- just one goal and two points through the first four games -- though it appears likely he is playing through some sort of issue, as he has not taken a faceoff in the past three games.

Even still, he might be the front-runner for the Conn Smythe Trophy for playoff MVP should the Lightning win, based on his critical contributions this postseason, especially during those stretches when Stamkos has struggled to produce. The Lightning would not be here without Johnson.

All from a kid who is listed, generously, at 5-foot-9 and went undrafted but signed as an unrestricted free agent with the Bolts in 2011.

His 13 playoff goals are the most for any Lightning player in the playoffs in franchise history, production so steady that when he went through a five-game goalless stretch recently, it was cause for alarm.

Cooper said he didn’t have “an ounce of worry” about Johnson at the time. And then right on cue, Johnson scored the very next game.

The 21-year-old Kucherov rounds out the trio, and he has the sort of hands that can make magic happen. Should you need evidence of that, just reference his goal in Game 2, when he made a deft deflection that required almost a marksman-like finesse.

Kucherov’s path to the team also began in 2011 (he was a second-round draft pick, 58th overall), but unlike Palat and Johnson, who played for Cooper in the American Hockey League, Kucherov took a different route to the NHL. He played in the Kontinental Hockey League for two seasons before coming to North America, where he spent the first season playing in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League before splitting time between the Syracuse Crunch and the Lightning last season.

Cooper said one reason the Triplets play together so well is that they genuinely like each other and hang out off the ice. Palat said Kucherov used to be a bit of a homebody; they’d have to prod him to go out to dinner when he’d just as soon stay in and order room service at the hotel. But now he’s coming out of his shell more and more.

"At first, I just tried to be quiet," Kucherov told ESPN.com. "I just wanted to listen. Not be loud, a clown. I just tried to be patient."

Kucherov’s personality was slow to emerge, but as his command of English has improved greatly -- on account of how hard he has worked at it, according to his teammates -- the team has gotten to see a side of him most others do not.

"Oh, he’s hilarious. He’s a lot of fun to be around," defenseman Victor Hedman said. "His personality is pretty special. ... He always has a smile on his face. Sometimes you don’t even always understand what he says, but he’s always smiling. But his English, compared to last year, is night and day, and you can tell he’s more comfortable around the guys, in the locker room."

There are still times, Kucherov concedes, when certain things get lost in translation.

"Sometimes they don’t get my jokes, and sometimes I don’t get theirs," Kucherov told ESPN.com. "Sometimes I just laugh anyway."

After the juggernaut we saw in the first three rounds of the playoffs, the Triplets have been more subdued in the finals. Then again, it’s been a weird series. Both Stamkos and Patrick Kane are still searching for their first goals of the series; Jonathan Toews notched his first in Game 3. The best team has not won at least a few of the games, and that was certainly true of Wednesday’s match.

One NHL scout told ESPN.com he was shocked the Hawks won.

“Worst game I’ve seen them play in six years,” he said.

Yet the series is tied 2-2 as it shifts back to Tampa for Game 5 at Amalie Arena. And one has to wonder if we have seen the last of the Triplets.

Odds are that we have not.