By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Undersized Tampa Bay Lightning forward Tyler Johnson, passed over in every NHL Draft he was eligible for, is silencing his critics by carrying the Tampa Bay Lightning on his shoulders in the thick of the playoffs.
The 5-9 (1.75m) Johnson, once considered too small for the NHL, has a playoff-leading 11 goals that have put the Lightning three wins away from upsetting the top-seeded New York Rangers and advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals.
"I don't think size really plays a big role," Johnson said on Monday after scoring short-handed, even strength and on the power to record the first hat trick in Lightning playoff history and tie the best-of-seven series at one game apiece.
"Everyone plays the game different regardless of how big you are, and you've just got to find what works for you."
Johnson, already being talked about as a front-runner to be named the playoffs' Most Valuable Player, set the tone early and at the expense of his former mentor while the host Rangers were on a two-man advantage.
Former Lightning player Martin St. Louis stumbled while trying to collect a pass and Tampa Bay's Alex Killorn pounced on the loose puck and sent Johnson on a breakaway for the game's first goal about five minutes after the opening faceoff.
Johnson added another goal shortly after the midway mark of the opening period and then scored what proved to be the game-winning goal eight minutes into the second period.
It was the 24-year-old American's fourth multi-goal game of the playoffs -- all of them coming when his team trailed in a series.
"The bigger the game, the better he plays," said Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. "It's unreal to watch."
While Johnson was able to take advantage of a gaffe by St. Louis to get his big night underway he had plenty of praise for his former teammate, who like himself went undrafted and who is even a touch shorter with a similarly tenacious playing style.
"He's done tremendous things for the league and tremendous things for me last year," said Johnson, who had a career-high 29 goals and 43 assists during the regular season. "He really taught me how to play the game at the NHL level."
Cooper said Johnson was simply a winner.
"You walk into that kid's house and you look at the trophy mantle and all you see is trophies of where this kid has won," he said. "Memorial Cup, Calder Cup, World Juniors ... winning follows that kid. You're a special player for that to happen."
Game Three is at Amalie Arena on Wednesday.
(Editing by Frank Pingue)