Once an undersized underdog, Lightning’s Tyler Johnson inspires

TAMPA, Fla. — He’s an underdog who has become a top dog in the postseason. He’s an example that if the right combination of timing and opportunity allow, the forgotten can become the feared.

Not that we needed another reminder Monday night, but center Tyler Johnson has become the Tampa Bay Lightning’s top story in the Stanley Cup playoffs. He produced the first postseason hat trick in his franchise’s history and morphed into a King Kong of Manhattan in lifting the Lightning to a 6-2 victory over the New York Rangers in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Largely because of him, the best-of-seven series stands tied at one game apiece.

Once undrafted, Johnson appears undeterred in the postseason with an NHL-high 11 goals and 16 points. Once disrespected, Johnson has destroyed the opposition in the league’s hottest spotlight, raising his profile in the process.

The best part: Johnson’s run can serve as inspiration that reaches beyond the most decorated of rinks.

At 5-foot-9, 175 pounds, he has shown that no body is too small to hold a large heart. Because of the way he entered the league — undrafted because of concerns about his size — he has shown that no golden path is required to discover treasure early in a career. He’s a maker of his own destiny, the real and imagined hurdles that stood in his way be damned.

There are reasons to believe he’s not done crafting his reputation.

None of this is new, of course. Johnson burst onto the scene in the 2013-14 season when he was named a Calder Trophy finalist along with teammate Ondrej Palat. But the playoffs can serve as a kingmaker, and Johnson has become royalty in recent weeks.

The underdog has transformed into a beast that should benefit the Lightning for years to come.

Tampa Bay Lightning news

The good news is that there can be a little Johnson inside all of us. That’s what makes him and others like him so compelling. The successful underdog stories inspire us because they reveal that the most daunting of walls can tumble down with sweat and will.

We aren’t at the mercy of some preordained destiny. But we face these walls for various reasons in either our personal or professional lives. They’re inevitable in our growth, and they shape us.

We’re told we’re too young. We’re told we’re too inexperienced. We’re told we don’t have the right resume, appearance or upbringing. We’re told we don’t have the proper prototype, either physically or psychologically, to accomplish a goal: Earn that promotion, gain that desired job, convince that crush to go out on a first date.

Johnson took a sledgehammer to everything that was placed in his way. He made cynics into supporters.

We can too.

"If there’s another level," Lightning center Alex Killorn said of Johnson, "that would be unbelievable."

"It’s unbelievable with his small size," Palat said, "but he has a big heart."

Granted, Johnson’s story also stands as an example that heart alone isn’t enough. The right set of eyes must be watching. It’s intriguing to observe him and wonder how many underdogs in various developmental leagues could have been like him but weren’t given a big break for whatever reason. Help is as necessary as the hustle.

What if Johnson’s father hadn’t felt compelled to convince his son to give hockey another try over pursuing medical school? What if Johnson hadn’t played for current Lightning coach Jon Cooper in the American Hockey League, a chance encounter that began a shared comfort that has helped define the new Lightning era? What if another coach hadn’t given Johnson the chance to star?

Johnson’s path could have bended in a number of directions. Likely, there are others who could have been like him, but they became too exasperated with the developmental grind and chose a different career. Or if they were fortunate to advance to the NHL, organizational politics may have become a barrier and stunted their growth for various reasons. Johnson’s tale could have turned out much differently.

The real lesson in Johnson’s example is this: Make the most of opportunity when given the chance, no matter the area of life. Make the moment count. Make dreams your destiny.

After all, opportunity fades much quicker than it arrives. When it’s gone, there’s no guarantee it will return.

"When you look at guys like that, they know how to play the game," Cooper said of Johnson. "And it’s just topped off with his determination and his will. It just makes him what he is."

It makes him a fine hockey talent, sure, one who at age 24 has more to show.

But his example lives as so much more.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.