Lightning in a bottle

Why is Tampa Bay forward Tyler Johnson so good?

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Lightning center Tyler Johnson has thrust himself into the national spotlight by notching 11 goals and five assists in 15 games during the playoffs. The diminutive Johnson is carrying the highest electric current in the hockey universe at the moment, possessing distinct traits that enable him to dominate the competition.

Johnson’s Patience

When Johnson receives the puck in the following two sequences, his composure is what opens up the shooting and passing lanes.

In their game against New York on Monday night, the Lightning are on a 4-on-3 power play when Steven Stamkos shuttles the puck down low, thus shrinking the chessboard for Johnson. Johnson now has a 2-on-1 below the faceoff dots, but he still faces defenseman Ryan McDonagh and the redoubtable goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.

Johnson has the sangfroid to feign a pass toward left winger Ondrej Palat – successfully crumbling the Rangers’ bulwark – before roofing it on Lundqvist’s glove side.

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The second sequence is from Game 4 of the first round, with Tampa Bay trailing 2-1 both in their series against the Red Wings and on the scoreboard.

The sequence starts with Johnson jetting through the neutral zone unencumbered. Big mistake on Detroit’s part. Palat pushes a rickety pass in Johnson’s direction, and No. 9 catches it and goes from backhand to forehand in one fluid movement.

As Johnson moves the puck to his forehand, he pivots, opening up toward the action in the middle of the ice. Johnson waits until Palat escapes the defensive pressure, which the winger achieves just as he arrives at the crease. Johnson fires a pass onto Palat’s stick, and it’s a tie game. Johnson’s patience on the give-and-go is remarkable, providing Palat the time to successfully split two opposing skaters, one of whom is three-time Selke Trophy winner Pavel Datsyuk.

Johnson’s Footwork

Johnson’s ability to control his speed and stride make these two goals against Detroit possible during a critical juncture in the series — Detroit was up, three games to two, and looking to close out the series at home. Tampa Bay will try 200-foot set plays on resets from their own zone from time to time, and in the game’s first goal, this works to perfection.

Bolts defenseman Victor Hedman makes a long stretch pass to teammate Nikita Kucherov at the far blue line, and Kucherov is able to stop the puck but not fully control it. Johnson is on a timing route, and Red Wings center Luke Glendening is the man responsible for shading Johnson. Unfortunately, Glendening breaks off his shadowing assignment and tries to prevent the pass to Johnson by charging Kucherov. But, by failing to deny the pass, he leaves poor Danny DeKeyser flat-footed to cover a charging Johnson.

Johnson shows some twinkle toes as he chops up his movement enough to stay onside and allows Kucherov to push the puck over the blue line first to enable the rush attempt. After gaining possession, Johnson protects the puck, then powers his way inside before abruptly stopping and depositing the puck top corner, blocker side.

Johnson’s second goal of the game shows him catching the puck and whipping a shot on net without breaking stride.

With the score 2-0, Detroit’s Brendan Smith coughs up the puck in the neutral zone, and Johnson receives the puck coming off the bench. In one swift, effortless move, he seizes the pass and takes a rocket of a wrist shot to beat Petr Mrazek. It takes him two seconds, from the 10:55 to the 10:53 mark, to collect the pass and release it from the top of the left circle. Had he been any slower, Red Wings defenseman DeKeyser, who was bearing down on Johnson, would have hindered the shot attempt and felled the scoring chance.

A lot of forwards in the NHL have speed and puck skills. What separates Johnson is his ability to open up his options by demonstrating patience with the puck and using his footwork to keep or alter his speed in accordance with the changing dynamics of the play.