NEW YORK -- A year ago, Tyler Johnson informed the hockey world of the immensity of his skill set in his rookie season.
This spring he’s telling us about the enormity of his heart.
Monday night’s hat trick at Madison Square Garden to lead his Tampa Bay Lightning to a 6-2 win over the New York Rangers in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals will go down as one of the more memorable nights in these playoffs.
A short-handed goal with his team down two men, a power-play goal and an even-strength goal that was all second effort -- it was breathtaking.
Just another day at the office for Johnson, who padded his playoff lead to 11 goals, and the goals weren't even his most impressive play of the night.
"He’s the complete package," said star Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman after his team evened the series 1-1. "He’s not just a playmaker and a goal-scorer; he’s not afraid to get physical, he’s not afraid to get in front of the net. You see that third goal, he’s in front of the net battling for it and it’s not a coincidence he got a stick on it. It’s just a lot of fun to watch. You sit on the bench and you see that, you’re really happy having him on your team. He showed last year how good a player he was and he showed this year it wasn’t a fluke. He’s been one of the best players in the league this year for a reason and he’s showing it in the playoffs."
You see, Tyler Johnson is a player everyone can love. The advanced stats community can respect him because his Triplets line spearheads the puck possession numbers when at the top of its game. And the old-school hockey guys like him because his will and work ethic stand out.
Of course back in 2008, 2009 and 2010, there wasn’t nearly as much love for him. He was passed over in all three NHL drafts he was eligible for. So 632 players were selected in those three drafts, but Johnson’s name wasn’t one of them announced.
You know the story by now: His 5-foot-9 frame scared off too many teams. He went to two development camps with the Minnesota Wild, but they ultimately didn’t sign him.
Al Murray, who at the time was still working for Hockey Canada, kept noticing the Spokane, Washington, native at games, including a world junior championship in January 2010 when Johnson played for Team USA.
"He was always the smartest player, the fastest and the most competitive in addition to his high skill level," Murray told ESPN.com via text message Monday night.
When Murray joined the Lightning as director of amateur scouting in August 2010, you know what came next: He eventually convinced general manager Steve Yzerman to take a chance on Johnson, and they signed him in March 2011.
"I told Steve that even if he never scored a point of us I could see him in a Steve Kasper role," said Murray via text. "His overage year in junior, Spokane led the WHL in [power play] and [penalty kill] percentage because of him. He is one of those guys who literally NEVER takes a shift off."
Neither do his linemates Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov. Palat was a two-way monster again Monday night. (I swear he’s going to win a Selke Trophy one day as the top defensive forward.) And Kucherov had three assists on this night, ho-hum.
They are the best line in the NHL, and there’s no argument about it.
"I think that's the best line I've seen in a long time with all three guys being able to contribute and just have that chemistry," said Lightning captain Stamkos, who scored his fourth goal of the playoffs. "Usually you see a lot of pairs in the NHL. To have three guys on a line, it's pretty special. ... Those guys are just resilient. They all work extremely hard and that's why they get rewarded. They're not just fast and skilled -- all of them are willing to go to the areas that not everyone is willing to go. That's why they get rewarded and that's why we're able to feed off them."
At the heart of the line, though, is the 24-year-old center with the chip on his shoulder.
"I've said this before, you walk into that kid's house and you look at the trophy mantle and all you see is trophies of where this kid has won: Memorial Cup, Calder Cup, World Juniors,” said Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper. "Winning follows that kid. You're a special player for that to happen. Tyler Johnson is not the only one this happens to, but to do it 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.
"I don't know. I can't say enough. He's one of 20 guys that takes the ice for us every night, but he is team first, will first. It's incredible to watch. Never lets you down."
Undrafted. Unwanted for three years. Unreal.
But it’s no longer what drives him. Johnson has moved on. He insists proving all those people wrong is not what fuels him these days.
"I don't know if that's really driving me to be honest with you," Johnson said Monday night. "I think every morning I'm just happy to be here and I'm living my dream. 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."
It’s no dream, kid, you made it happen.