Drouin 'ready to go' and return to Lightning lineup
Lightning wing Jonathan Drouin had just one word to describe his battle with injuries this season.
"Long," he said.
That's why Drouin is excited to return to the lineup tonight against the Rangers after having missed the last eight with a lower-body injury. He missed nine earlier this season.
"It definitely nice to feel good again," Drouin said. I'm ready to go."
Drouin doesn't anticipate taking a while to get back into his game, pointing out the great work strength and conditioning coach Mark Lambert does with him. Drouin had a goal and an assist against Anaheim Dec. 2, the last time he returned from lengthy absence, and said he hopes it's the "same way" tonight. Drouin has two goals and six assists in 18 games.
"Even when I came back from the other (injury), I felt I was still playing well, still had my jump in my step, which is good," Drouin said. "It's up to me to get it again and I'm sure it'll be fine."
It'll be interesting to see how Drouin is integrated back into the lineup. The top line has seemed pretty set, with Vladislav Namestnikov, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov. Jonathan Marchessault has elevated his game to earn a spot in the top-six, and top power play unit. From the looks of it, it appears Erik Condra will be a healthy scratch to make room for Drouin.
"These guys have missed an extended period of time," coach Jon Cooper said. "There's always a little bit of a rust factor coming back, so you have to ease these guys in and make sure they're getting the pace of the game, getting some of the rust off. It doesn't matter how often you practice, it's not a game. So we'll get a feel for how these guys are playing and inch them along."
Left wing Ondrej Palat (left ankle) will miss his eighth straight game. He said he's feeling "better and better" everyday, with the hope to return during next week's roadtrip. That would give Tampa Bay 14 healthy forwards.
Is Cooper comfortable carrying 14 forwards, meaning at least two would be scratched each game?
"That'll be a question for when (Palat) gets back," Cooper said.
More from morning skate: G Ben Bishop will start against the Rangers, having gone 9-0-0 in his career during the regular season against New York. There's no sugar-coating the importance of these games for the Lightning, which is still out of a playoff spot. "Panic has not set in. But are we well aware of what we have to do? Yes," Cooper said. "Is there heightened urgency? There better be." It looks like D Matt Carle, a healthy scratch the past two games, will be back in the lineup, with D Nikita Nesterov scratched. The Lightning is getting more production from its blueline, with D Jason Garrison scoring a goal in each of the past two games, Nesterov adding one against Columbus. "It's been big the last couple years having 'D' in our attack and being able to contribute," Cooper said. "It's not a coincidence that when they're scoring, we're winning a few of those." Veteran wing Ryan Callahan hopes his goal Monday, snapping a 22-game drought, is the start of something. "Once they reviewed it, I was kind of laughing to myself, this thing probably is not going to go in, the way things are going for me," Callahan joked. While Callahan the goal drought weighed on him, he didn't let it impact how he played his usual game. "He's one of the heart and soul guys on our team," Cooper said. "You see the reception he gets from the fans, everyone appreciates the way he plays. But he's always somebody that is used to getting 20 goals a year, and when those guys go a few games without scoring, it's frustrating. You have to remind them how much they're doing for our team. They're hockey players, everyone wants to score. I could tell a little bit of relief when he finally did score. Hope this fuels more goals to follow."