Last, but certainly not least … 💍 pic.twitter.com/VsaQn0UZBY
— Tampa Bay Lightning (@TBLightning) March 6, 2022
CHICAGO — Before the Lightning’s win Sunday in Chicago, they were reunited with an old friend.
Now wearing the colors of the Blackhawks, Tyler Johnson entered a room in the United Center filled with his former teammates, the last member of the 2021 Stanley Cup squad to receive his ring.
The Lightning have made a nice habit of these informal presentations. When Yanni Gourde, Blake Coleman, Barclay Goodrow and Luke Schenn returned to Tampa, the team gathered in the Amalie Arena family lounge.
David Savard received his ring on the Lightning’s first trip to Montreal, and retired Curtis McElhinney brought his kids to the team hotel in Denver to accept his before the Lightning played the Avalanche.
Just like those who received their rings before him, Johnson’s gathering was full of hugs and smiles. General manager Julien BriseBois presented him with a white box that opened to reveal the ring and a video montage.
“When you have teams that win together, regardless of who it is in the organization, from the stick boy to the captain, there’s a special bond between all of us,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “So it just conjures up great feelings from the past, especially when the ring opens up and they see the whole presentation. Like I said to (goaltending coach) Frantz (Jean) in there, this never gets old. It was awesome.”
The Lightning’s second straight Stanley Cup run was themed the “last day of school,” and the ring presentations were the class reunion, Cooper said.
“It’s always fun, it’s fun to see,” Cooper said. “We’ve all aged a little bit, but it’s still the same great feelings.”
That Johnson, who was homegrown, played nine years in the organization and was a fan favorite, was the final Lightning player to receive his ring was ironic. Cooper waxed about how his, Johnson’s and Ondrej Palat’s time together dated back to the AHL with Norfolk. Palat played his 600th game last week, and Johnson’s first game against his former team on Sunday was the 600th of his career.
Johnson played a big role in the Lightning’s growth, teaming with Palat and Nikita Kucherov to form the “Triplets” line that helped lead Tampa Bay to the 2015 Stanley Cup final against the Blackhawks.
“He was one of the game-changers for us,” Cooper said. “It was with Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Alex Killorn, Nikita Kucherov. That was kind of our upcoming foundation with some of the vets that are still here. But you look at this organization where we landed kind of on the hockey map, it was 2015. Those guys, they were leading the charge.”
The Lightning tried to trade Johnson before last season to create salary-cap space and even ran him through waivers at the start of the season. But he stayed with the team and handled moving to the fourth line with grace, playing a key role in the run to a second straight Cup. He was traded to Chicago in the offseason for retired defenseman Brent Seabrook’s dead contract, giving Tampa Bay long-term injury relief to help it get under the cap.
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“Those guys, they’re my brothers,” Johnson said before Sunday’s game. “I love every single one of them. So it’s going to be pretty fun. It’s going to be like some of those battles in the summer in practice that we always had together. So I’m looking forward to it.”
The game was just Johnson’s 11th with the Blackhawks, his third after neck surgery sidelined him for four months. He said he had played with the neck issue for four years. He chose to undergo artificial disk surgery instead of fusion and leaned on Vegas forward Jack Eichel, who also had the procedure.
“With the (ADR), they say that normally you kind of feel just how you were before, but to be honest with you, I feel better,” Johnson said. “I haven’t been able to sleep on my stomach in probably four years because of this. And now I’m able to do that, so, I mean, that’s pretty cool. It’s honestly crazy. I don’t wake up in the morning having a stiff neck anymore, so I’m pretty happy about it.”
Though he wore a different jersey and a new number (90, because the No. 9 Johnson wore in Tampa belonged to Hall of Famer Bobby Hull and is retired) Sunday, Johnson showed the same flash he did in his years with the Lightning, fearlessly getting in front of the net and utilizing his speed to drive to the net.
He was the trailer on a Blackhawks 2-on-1 breakaway in the first period and shot just high, but Cooper was worried Johnson would find the net.
“It was different to see him out there,” Cooper said. “I thought for sure he was gonna score (Sunday night).”
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The Tampa Bay Times has commemorated the Lightning’s second consecutive Stanley Cup title with a new hardcover coffee table book, Striking Twice. Order now.
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