DETROIT — For Lightning center Valtteri Filppula, facing his former team for the first time tonight at Joe Louis Arena will be the easy part.
Much tougher, he said, would be Friday dinner with some of his former Red Wings teammates.
"I'll probably have to pay," Filppula said, laughing.
Seriously, though, the timing could not be better for Filppula to return to the city where in 2005 he began his NHL career and in 2008 got his name on the Red Wings' wall of champions by winning a Stanley Cup.
The Lightning (11-4-0), winner of three straight and six of seven, is first in the Atlantic Division. Detroit is third.
"A pretty cool setup," Filppula said.
As notable, though, is how seamlessly Filppula, 29, has slid into his role as Tampa Bay's No. 2 center after signing a five-year, $25 million free agent contract in the offseason.
His six goals are third on the team and just three fewer than he had last season for Detroit in an injury-filled, lockout-shortened season.
His 12 points are tied for third on the team. He has won 54.6 percent of his faceoffs. He anchors the second power-play unit, has dazzled with his passing and puck-possession skills, and has impressed with his commitment to defense.
Okay, so he doesn't shoot enough, but he makes the most of the shots he takes. His 35.3 shooting percentage (six goals on 17 shots) is a league best.
"For us," coach Jon Cooper said, "he's been a home run."
None of it, though, has diminished the respect Filppula said he has for the Red Wings, for whom he played 483 games in eight seasons and had 100 goals and 251 points.
"I got to see, I got to watch, I got to play with some really, really good players and see how they play and do off-ice stuff," said the 6-foot-1, 193-pounder, who signed with Detroit as a free agent from Finland. "I learned a lot. It's definitely going to help me the rest of my career."
Most important, though, was what Filppula called an organizational philosophy that "everything was even keel."
"You expect to win, and if you win, it wasn't a huge celebration," he said. "If you lose, you knew you were going to come back. You stayed the whole season on the same course."
It is a sensibility that suits Filppula, who Cooper said "has a quiet confidence about himself" and "ice in his veins on the ice."
"He's just stabilized our forward group," Cooper said. "He gets those unsung-hero minutes. He's out there against the big lines at big times of the game, taking the big faceoffs. He just quietly goes about his business."
His teammates have adjusted.
"It's taken some time to get used to, but we're starting to build some chemistry," linemate Teddy Purcell said. "Because he holds the puck so much, you've got to get away from him and let him do his thing and get open."
As for tonight, Filppula said he will measure the reunion only by the game's outcome. Extra credit will be finding his way to the visitors' locker room and keeping his sense of direction on the ice.
"I just hope I don't change (shifts) at the wrong bench," Filppula said.