Elliott: For a 208th draft pick, Ondrej Palat is becoming quite the Stanley Cup hero

Elliott: For a 208th draft pick, Ondrej Palat is becoming quite the Stanley Cup hero

Lightning coach Jon Cooper clearly remembers the first time he saw winger Ondrej Palat.

Cooper was coaching Tampa Bay’s American Hockey League affiliate in Norfolk, Va., when he had to decide what to do with the quiet Czech kid who had been passed over in his first year of draft eligibility and was chosen by the Lightning in the seventh round (208th overall) in 2011.

At that stage of the draft, teams are looking for warm bodies and not expecting much. Palat was different. He stood out immediately. Cooper was intrigued.

“We were like, ‘There’s something about this kid. Let’s keep him, not send him back to junior. We’re going to play him but let’s get our hands on him and see what we can do,”’ Cooper recalled.

Cooper scratched him from the lineup occasionally. Palat never fails to remind him of that now, but Cooper doesn’t mind. “When we got him in, what you’re seeing today is what we saw in him,” Cooper said.

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The hockey world is seeing a clutch scorer, a versatile and smart player who elevates his game when the stakes are highest. He was overlooked in his draft year and overshadowed in the Lightning’s two previous Stanley Cup runs by Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point, but Palat has been a star among stars in the playoffs.

By scoring the 12th game-winning playoff goal of his career, a shot from one knee between the faceoff circles that beat Colorado goaltender Darcy Kuemper with 6:22 left in the third period on Friday at Ball Arena, he allowed the Lightning to extend the Cup Final to a sixth game. Instead of going home for the summer they’re going back to Amalie Arena with a chance Sunday to continue their quest for a third straight Cup championship. If they win at home, where they’re 8-2 during these playoffs, the Cup will be decided on Tuesday in Denver.

In a series filled with high-profile players who were drafted as early as No. 1 or were considered solid prospects before they became superstars, it’s refreshing to see the guy drafted 208th making a significant mark.

“He scores a lot of big goals this time in the playoffs. It’s pretty remarkable,” said Steven Stamkos, who centers the Lightning’s top line for Palat and Kucherov. “We always joke with Pally that he just finds a way. Sneaky P found a way to put one in.”

His feats can’t be considered sneaky anymore. Palat scored 11 goals in the Lightning’s 2020 Cup run, three of them game-winners. In their 2021 repeat he scored only five goals but two were game-winners. After scoring 18 goals and 49 points in 77 regular-season games in 2021-22 he has scored 11 goals — three of them game-winners — in 22 playoff games.

“He keeps doing it. He’s a gamer. He finds a way every single night,” Lightning fourth-line winger Pat Maroon said. “He plays the right way, he plays hard, he gets into the dirty areas and he gets rewarded. When you do that, you’re going to get rewarded when you work hard for 200 feet and every inch of the game. He’s a player.” There’s no greater compliment than that.

Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Ondrej Palat celebrates after scoring against the Colorado Avalanche in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final on Friday.

(David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

Palat has never been motivated by a need to prove the teams who ignored him were wrong. “When I was drafted and I went to the NHL for first time I was just trying to work hard,” he said. “Play every game same way and stay in the NHL and yeah, it’s been working so far.”

He deflected praise for the winning goal on Friday, saying defenseman Victor Hedman deserved credit for finding him as he tried to get open. “It was just easy shot for me,” Palat said. “I’m just trying to one-time and lucky enough it went in.”

To reach this point requires luck, talent and perseverance. Both teams have battled through injuries; Point has been in and out of the lineup and was out on Friday, and Colorado winger Andre Burakovsky, who scored the overtime winner in Game 1, has missed three consecutive games after being hit in the hand during Game 2. Avalanche coach Jared Bednar said before the team traveled to Tampa on Saturday that Burakovsky is a possibility for Game 6.

Bednar said he thought his team had played hard on Friday but gave up too much defensively and took some needless penalties. That included the penalty for too many men on the ice they took with 2:43 left in the third period, which prevented them from making a late push. “But all around, pretty good hockey game from our group, gave ourselves a chance to win, didn’t get it done, now we have to go on the road and win a big game,” Bednar said.

The Avalanche didn’t play with the urgency or sharpness that the Lightning did on Friday. Another incomplete performance by Colorado will likely lead to a Game 7, which is always unpredictable. “Certainly Tampa brought it,” Bednar said Friday. “We’ve seen it building with both teams as the series goes on and there’s still lots of hockey to be played.”

The Lightning can thank Sneaky P for giving them a chance to play again on Sunday, and maybe beyond. Here’s to the seventh-round picks who become first-rate players.

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