TAMPA, Fla. -- Tyler Johnson has emerged as a bona fide star for the Tampa Bay Lightning this postseason. He leads the NHL with 12 goals and 21 points during the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs. He has had to do the heavy lifting on offense during the stretches when superstar captain Steven Stamkos has gone cold. And Johnson may be one of the front-runners for the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Johnson and the dynamic “Triplets” have combined to form a line that gives opponents no choice but to target and game plan against them.
At 5-foot-8, the 24-year-old undrafted free agent from Spokane, Washington, has been nothing short of a revelation for the Bolts en route to the team’s first trip back to the Stanley Cup finals since their championship run in 2004.
But now, in the midst of a five-game goal-less stretch, the questions are starting and the scrutiny intensifying.
Welcome to the playoffs, kid.
So should there be a concern in his recent dip in production?
Not for Lightning coach Jon Cooper.
“Guys go through the rollercoaster ride. I don't know anybody that can score at a pace that he was going on. Look at his line, though. He may not have scored, but his line scored. He's picking up assists, he's picking up points. He’s such a huge part of our team,” Cooper said. “There's not an ounce of worry about the fact that he's not scoring.”
Johnson was not available for comment Friday -- he was getting medical treatment -- so it’s safe to assume he’s probably hurting right now. But the same could be said for virtually every player who laced up the skates in Game 1.
At least one NHL scout thinks the Chicago Blackhawks' speed is giving Johnson and his linemates more trouble than the New York Rangers did in the Eastern Conference finals. The scout said that team speed has helped neutralize Johnson by making open ice tougher to come by.
“And it’s only going to get tougher and [there will be] less space as the series goes on,” the scout told ESPN.com.
Fortunately for the Lightning, Stamkos and his linemates have stepped up when Johnson’s productivity fell into a lull. However, the Lightning know they need more balanced contributions throughout their lineup. The Bolts have made it this far by getting production primarily from two lines, but that is not the ideal blueprint for success.
“It’s working right now,” veteran Brenden Morrow said. “But it’s not going to work forever.”
Chicago veteran center Brad Richards wouldn’t disclose details about what specifically the team keyed in to try and limit Johnson and his line, but Richards sounded satisfied with how they executed the plan in Game 1.
Johnson had just one shot on goal, two shot attempts total. Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov were also limited to just two shot attempts apiece, with the line going up primarily against the trio of Andrew Desjardins, Marcus Kruger and Andrew Shaw.
“Hopefully, we can keep them like that,” Richards said.
Cooper said Johnson hasn’t shown any visible signs of distress or frustration. The only thing that matters to him is the team’s final result.
“Johnny is a winner,” Cooper said. “He would take having zero goals right now if it meant that we were to be here.”
That people are even talking about his goal-scoring drought just goes to show that he has truly made it as a legitimate, scoring force in this league.
“We rely on him so much. I think I made the comment yesterday. He's been so good that when he doesn't score, it's almost the alarm goes off,” Cooper said. “That's a tribute to how he's risen in this league. But not a worry. That kid's a winner.”