NEWARK, N.J. — Of course he did.
As if the story line of once-disgruntled, once-suspended wing Jonathan Drouin returning to the Lightning on Thursday wasn't sizzling enough, he ended up scoring the winner in a 4-2 victory over the Devils at the Prudential Center.
"It's a good story," coach Jon Cooper said. "This is the way you want it to go. It's one step."
But it's a big one. Drouin, called up to boost an injury-depleted forward group, helped a team he had demanded a trade from in November clinch home ice in the first round of the playoffs, which begin Wednesday at Amalie Arena against Detroit or Boston.
It was Drouin's first NHL goal since Dec. 2, and he celebrated like it had been forever, vigorously pumping his fist.
"Just kind of blacked out a little bit," Drouin said. "Just emotions going through your body. Really happy. Definitely a big goal in the game, too."
The Lightning (46-30-5) also got goals from checking forwards Erik Condra and Cedric Paquette. Ben Bishop, making his 60th start of the season, came through with 20 saves, including a big breakaway stop early in the second period.
But it was Drouin who stole the show.
Drouin, in the starting lineup on the second line with Vladislav Namestnikov and Alex Killorn, said it took a period to get acclimated before feeling like his "old self" in the second. Cooper said he loved how Drouin was engaged in the game, commanding — and wanting — the puck, taking a game-high four shots.
Then came his goal early in the third. Drouin stole the puck on a backcheck and started a give-and-go with Namestnikov. Drouin tried going high glove side on goalie Kevin Kinkaid, but the puck bounced off his stick and ended up between the goalie's legs. It was fitting considering the roll Drouin has been on, having scored nine goals in his last nine games in AHL Syracuse.
"He's got the hot hand," Killorn said. "He had confidence. He's so dynamic."
Drouin provides a much-needed boost. Captain Steven Stamkos, with his team-high 36 goals, is out 1-3 months due to a blood clot. Ryan Callahan hopes to be ready for Game 1 of the playoffs. Then here comes Drouin, the No. 3 overall draft pick in 2013.
"He's an offensive threat," Cooper said. "When he's got his feet moving and got some open ice, that kid can make some plays."
There were a lot of smiles from Drouin on Thursday. He talked about how he missed the game like "crazy" during a six-week team suspension at home after leaving Syracuse on Jan. 20 while awaiting a trade he requested in November.
"Definitely trying not to turn the TV on to watch it," he said. "Maybe I'll regret it one day. We'll see how it goes."
Drouin did keep track of the Lightning on Twitter, part of him wishing he was with the team. Now he is, and he is a big part with the playoffs approaching.
All that's left is the regular-season finale in his hometown of Montreal on Saturday. "Definitely not bad timing," Drouin said, smiling. "Not complaining."
Not at all. Not anymore.
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.
First Period—1, Tampa Bay, Condra 6 (Sustr, Boyle), 5:45. Penalties—Sustr, TB (hooking), :37; New Jersey bench, served by Blandisi (too many men), 3:10; Blunden, TB, minor-major (roughing, fighting), 10:16; Farnham, NJ, major (fighting), 10:16; Blandisi, NJ (roughing), 10:16.
Second Period—2, New Jersey, Kalinin 7 (Moore, Gionta), 7:16. 3, Tampa Bay, Paquette 6 (Filppula, Carle), 14:45. Penalties—Blandisi, NJ (roughing), 3:58.
Third Period—4, Tampa Bay, Drouin 3 (Namestnikov), 3:50. 5, New Jersey, Kalinin 8 (Farnham, Gionta), 9:26. 6, Tampa Bay, Filppula 8 (Kucherov, Carle), 19:13 (en). Penalties—Namestnikov, TB (roughing), 14:07; Blandisi, NJ (roughing), 14:07. Shots on Goal—Tampa Bay 10-7-5—22. New Jersey 3-11-8—22. Power-play opportunities—Tampa Bay 0 of 2; New Jersey 0 of 1. Goalies—Tampa Bay, Bishop 35-21-4 (22 shots-20 saves). New Jersey, Kinkaid 9-9-1 (21-18). A—15,536 (17,625). T—2:24. Referees—Marc Joannette, Tim Peel. Linesmen—Derek Amell, David Brisebois.