Tyler Johnson's path to the Stanley Cup Final is hardly the one he envisioned.
The budding Tampa Bay Lightning star began his pro career as an undrafted prospect supposedly too small to succeed. He's rapidly making a name for himself as part of the exciting young "Triplets" line that's been one of the keys to his team's strong playoff run.
Steven Stamkos may by the Lightning captain and face of the franchise. Johnson and linemates Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov are proving Tampa Bay is much more than a one-man show.
The speedy trio, which began playing with each other in the minor leagues, has accounted for more half of the Lightning's 55 goals this postseason.
Johnson, 24, leads the way with 12 — five more than Stamkos, whose 43 goals ranked second in the NHL to Alex Ovechkin's 53 during the regular season. Kucherov, 21, has nine, and Palat, 24, has seven.
"I just love playing with those guys. We've done extremely well all season," Johnson said Tuesday, the eve of the start of the Cup final against the Chicago Blackhawks.
"For whatever reason, we kind of clicked together. I've been playing with Pallie for about four years now, so I kind of know all the ins and outs with him. But Kuch, he comes on our line, and the very first game it felt natural. It just worked," Johnson added. "I think we all play similar styles, but at the same time bring something a little bit different. It just works really well."
Good friends, though not necessarily buddies who spend a lot of time together off the ice. Johnson, Palat and Kucherov all point to the four months the Lightning played last season without an injured Stamkos as a confidence-boosting stretch when they began to realize they had a chance to develop into a dynamic line.
With Stamkos struggling offensively early in the playoffs, the Triplets carried Tampa Bay against Detroit in the first round. When the two-time Maurice Richard Trophy winner began to get back on track against Montreal, the 5-foot-9 Johnson — an All-Star for the first time this season — and his less-heralded linemates continued to produce.
"I think we're smart players, I think we think the same way and try to help each other all over the ice," Kucherov, a second-round draft pick in 2011, said.
"We just put the young guys together and committed to playing them," coach Jon Cooper said. "As it turned out, they went from rookies to stars on our team in a short time.
"For me, I had a ton of confidence in these young guys; maybe because I was a rookie myself as a pro. We just kind of made this commitment to come up together. Did I ever foresee I was going to be a coach in the NHL, coach the Tampa Bay Lightning and all these guys we're all playing for me, I probably couldn't have predicted that. But I will sit here and say I owe a lot of my success to that."
Johnson and Palat, a seventh-round pick who's been much better than general manager Steve Yzerman anticipated when the Lightning selected him four years ago, both played in the minors under Cooper at Norfolk and Syracuse.
"I'm not here without them, and potentially they're not here as fast," Cooper said. "They may be here but maybe not as fast without myself."
Cooper remembers the day Johnson began a transformation.
"Super Bowl Sunday, 2012. Tyler Johnson was minus-9 on the season that day. ... But he proceeded to be our leading scorer after that. I think he went plus-40 the rest of the way," the coach said.
Johnson led a stretch run that concluded with Norfolk winning the AHL championship. The Admirals carried a 28-game winning streak into the AHL playoffs, but Johnson's scoring wasn't the only reason.
"Johnny learned how to be a pro hockey player. He learned that there were two nets on the ice," Cooper said. "What he's doing in the NHL started in the American League. You even look when he first came to the NHL, he didn't make the league when he first came in. He had to navigate himself around and understand how much time and space he has and that he's got to play D and different things he has to do on the ice to succeed.
Cut by his USHL team when he was 17, Johnson insists he's no longer driven to prove the rest of the NHL made a mistake by not giving him a chance.
The Blackhawks and Minnesota Wild both expressed interest before Johnson accepted an offer from the Lightning after a conversation with Yzerman. The GM has overhauled Tampa Bay's roster since the Lightning's loss in the Eastern Conference finals four years ago, with just Stamkos and Victor Hedman remaining.
Yzerman only assured him one thing — his status as an undrafted player would not impede his chances of sticking.
"He admitted he didn't watch me play, but he relied on his scouts," Johnson said. "I think the biggest thing for me was, he said if you work hard enough, you're going to get the opportunity. He said it doesn't matter if you're a first-rounder, third-rounder or undrafted like me, everyone's going to have the same opportunity."