ST. PAUL, Minn. — The Lightning got an unexpected boost Saturday, LW Jonathan Drouin returning to the lineup after missing five games with a lower-body injury.
But Tampa Bay lost a key piece, potentially for a while, when LW Ondrej Palat suffered a lower-body injury in the second period against the Wild and didn't return.
It certainly didn't look good, Palat having to be helped into the dressing room. During a mad scramble by the Lightning net midway through the second, Wild RW Nino Niederreiter landed awkwardly on Palat's left leg/ankle. Palat gingerly skated off the ice. No timetable was given for his return, but coach Jon Cooper said there was concern the injury could be more than day to day.
Drouin was a surprise addition to the lineup, having made very little progress in the past week. But after feeling great after Saturday's skate, he made it clear he was ready. Drouin played on a line with C Brian Boyle and RW J.T. Brown, with RW Erik Condra a healthy scratch. Drouin did not get power play time.
Cooper noted Drouin had been out longer than expected. Drouin had been off to a strong start, with six points in his first 10 games while playing on the top line with C Steven Stamkos. Drouin has had the injury since Oct. 27 in St. Louis. He'd been skating regularly for a week, with the issue affecting his stride and power as he skated.
TRADE TOUGH: If the Lightning is indeed shopping D Matt Carle, as many have speculated, it'll likely be tough to move the veteran.
Carle, the team's highest-paid defenseman ($5.5 million annual salary cap hit through 2017-18), returned to the lineup Saturday after being a healthy scratch twice in the previous four games.
The way Wild GM Chuck Fletcher assessed the market, saying 15 teams either have players on long-term injured reserve or are within $1 million of the cap, not many GMs are able to take on more salary this time of year.
"It's hard to make trades at the best of times because you're trying to find a team that has what you need and they need to need what you have," Fletcher said. "That's hard enough, never mind balancing out the dollars. But now it has to be a dollar-for-dollar trade as well.
"Some of the teams that are well below the cap are budget teams and are probably at their number even if they're not at the cap. So as the season goes on and more of the salaries and dollars get paid, it gets a little bit easier. But you have to be very creative this time of year."
ON FIRE: Cooper said RW Nikita Kucherov has elevated his game. Kucherov entered Saturday's game on a four-game points streak, with three goals and three assists. "I felt more confidence and feel like our game is getting back," Kucherov said. "The first 10 games were like crazy, nothing working. Now it's just trying to keep it simple."
NUTS AND BOLTS: D Nikita Nesterov scored Friday for AHL Syracuse, with whom he also played Saturday. Crunch coach Rob Zettler said Nesterov, sent down to get more minutes, will likely rejoin the Lightning before Tuesday's game against Buffalo. That decision was to be made after Saturday's game.