BRANDON — The Lightning is finally starting to get healthy.
All-Star center Tyler Johnson practiced again Saturday and is nearing a return. Center Cedric Paquette (upper body), who hasn't played since Nov. 14, said he's "really close" to returning, potentially playing against the Senators tonight, when wing Erik Condra (lower body) is expected back.
Ondrej Palat (left ankle) isn't that far from returning, though he likely won't be back until after the Christmas break. Even wing Jonathan Drouin (lower body), who skated on his own last week, is progressing.
That Tampa Bay is still within striking distance of a playoff spot — four points behind third-place Ottawa and Detroit in the Atlantic Division — is a testament to the organization's depth. To the rescue has been #tampacuse. Playing without five regular forwards, three of them in the top six, the Lightning has gotten key contributions from AHL Syracuse callups Jonathan Marchessault, Joel Vermin, Yanni Gourde, Mike Blunden and Mike Angelidis.
"I don't think there's a panic, like, 'Oh my God,' " coach Jon Cooper said. "It's like, 'Go get 'em.' We know (the callups) can do the job. It's a good sign for depth."
The callups have crushed the shorthanded Crunch, which has played defenseman Daniel Walcott as a forward (he scored his first pro goal Friday). And they have squeezed the Lightning's payroll; it has around $30,000 of space under the salary cap. Tampa Bay wasn't able to call up Angelidis on Thursday until it put Vermin (hand surgery) on long-term injured reserve.
But the recalls have rescued the Lightning.
Raise your hand if you thought Marchessault would be playing 19 minutes in a game and put in the slot on the first power-play unit. … Didn't think so. But Marchessault, with his shoot-first mentality and four goals in 16 games, has played himself onto the Tampa Bay roster. Having played more than 10 NHL games this season, Marchessault would have to clear waivers to get sent back to Syracuse, a move that is unlikely.
Blunden, who worked his way back after right MCL and ACL surgeries in February, scored the tying goal in Tuesday's come-from-behind 5-4 victory over Toronto, with fellow birthday boy Gourde picking up his first NHL assist. The Lightning has gotten a better chance to evaluate these prospects while also winning eight of its past 13.
"We're not in a situation where we're trying to keep our head above water," Cooper said. "We're trying to climb in the standings. And these guys are really contributing. That's big contributions from guys that aren't regulars in the lineup. When they're doing that, it just makes it so much easier for us as a team. We can put them out there and good things will happen."
SLAP SHOTS: The Red Wings reportedly are bringing in consultant — and Hall of Famer — Adam Oates to work with them for a few days. Maybe the Lightning should consider asking Oates, also a former Tampa Bay assistant coach, for help with its power play, ranked 26th entering Saturday. … Though D Andrej Sustr might have frustrated fans with some of his growing pains and inconsistency, he has recently rewarded the Lightning's faith, picking up three points in the past two games and logging career highs in minutes Tuesday (19:41) and Friday against the Capitals (21:15).