Palat is money for Lightning, could cash in as a free agent | Sports News

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By STEPHEN WHYNO, AP Hockey Writer

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — If this is Ondrej Palat’s final playoff series with the Tampa Bay Lightning, he certainly makes it count.

Soon he could count on tens of millions of dollars on a new contract.

A pending free agent with a knack for scoring big goals to go along with elite defensive prowess, Palat scored another big goal on Friday night to keep two-time defending champion Lightning alive in the League Finals. Stanley Cup against the Colorado Avalanche. He leads the NHL with eight game-winning goals since the start of the 2020 playoffs.

“He’s a special kid and a special player,” coach Jon Cooper said. “He’s a great addition to talented players, controllers – wherever you need him. He just does his job and he gets rewarded for his efforts. And everyone in this room knows how much Palat has brought to this organization.

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Cooper essentially wrote the sales pitch to the rest of the league on behalf of Palat, the 31-year-old Czech winger who could be the last Lightning player to be squeezed by the salary cap and hit the open market.

Even at his age, Palat believes he will get a raise from his current cap of $5.3 million because he delivers at important times, just like any contender would want from a free agent.

“He’s not afraid to step up in the big moments,” said teammate Nick Paul, a trade delay pick-up by the Lightning who could also get rich in free agency. “He showed it time and time again. When you have a team and a lot of people are ready to step up and take the opportunity, that’s huge.

Palat appreciates the opportunity he has in the present more than what he faces this summer. One option is to re-sign with the Lightning.

“It’s all in my head,” Palat said before the series started. “But I’m just focused on the final, and then there’s a moment for the next stage.”

The Lightning went from equally raced to title contender many years ago with Palat as part of their core. He was part of the famous “Triplets” lineage along with Nikita Kucherov and Tyler Johnson when Tampa Bay reached the Cup final in 2015 and was instrumental in the team’s success through six trips to the final of the Eastern Conference and two championships so far.

Cooper, the only professional coach Palat has had in North America, doesn’t think the almost twice undrafted seventh-round pick Mr. Irrelevant gets enough credit for what he brings. .

“He’s still the third guy we talk about on that line,” Cooper said of Palat playing with Brayden Point and Kucherov. “But if you ask the other two players in his line, they might talk about him the most.”

That’s true because Palat is often the one to pick up the puck for qualifying linemates and pave the way for them to skate towards the net. Paul praised him for what he delivers off the ice, and Kucherov knows all about what Palat delivers at this time of year.

“He seems to like those big moments and he plays extremely well under pressure,” Kucherov said. “You see him in past playoffs and this playoffs, so very happy to have him as a teammate for sure.”

Although not for very long, the Lightning are happy that captain Steven Stamkos, nicknamed “Sneaky P”, contributes to another long run.

“He’s a player,” said three-time champion Patrick Maroon. “He finds a way every night. He plays the right way, he plays hard, he gets into dirty areas and he gets rewarded. When you do this, you will be rewarded when you work hard for 200 feet and every inch of the game. He’s a player. »

Follow AP Hockey writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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