UNIONDALE, N.Y. — RW Brett Connolly is ready to come back.
Connolly, out since Oct. 24, said Tuesday's skate was the best he has felt so far, with his leg "pretty much back to normal." Connolly wasn't in the lineup Tuesday against the Islanders, but said he hopes to "sneak" in for Thursday's game in Toronto.
"I'm very excited," Connolly said. "The team is playing well so it makes it harder to get in, but when you do get the chance, I've got to be ready."
Connolly might have been playing his best hockey of the season when he got hurt in Winnipeg; he was elevated to a top-six role due to injuries.
"The four, five games before I got hurt I felt like I was finding my game and playing a lot more," Connolly said. "I'm very excited to come back and do things I was doing before I got hurt."
But with the Lightning's depth, the lineup is tough to crack. When Connolly returns, Tampa Bay will have to scratch two forwards. LW Brenden Morrow got scratched Tuesday for the first time this season.
The Lightning did lose one forward Tuesday, as C Cedric Paquette left in the first period with a lower-body injury. Paquette had one blocked shot in 2:40. He had five goals in his previous six games and has been impressive overall. There was no update post-game.
Not yet: D Victor Hedman (fractured finger) is still a few weeks from returning, though he's making good progress. Hedman continues to skate in full gear but is only able to stickhandle and not yet shoot, which is the big test. Tuesday was the four-week mark since his surgery, but he'll be on the latter end of the 4-6 weeks prognosis. "It's a long process, but you've got to be positive and be patient," he said. "Obviously it's a lot easier when the team is winning."
Lining up: Other than Morrow, D Eric Brewer was scratched for the second straight game, as D Mark Barberio played in back-to-back games, his fifth of the season. "Obviously I want to play, I want to be in the lineup," Barberio said. "I understand we have a lot of depth, a lot of good defensemen; sometimes that means I have to wait my turn."
Standing out: Hard to find another Lightning player who has improved more in one year than rookie C Vladislav Namestnikov. Namestnikov, 21, entered Tuesday with three goals and four assists, impressing with his strong puck-possession skills, poise and playmaking ability. Coach Jon Cooper said Namestnikov and Paquette have been two of the team's most reliable penalty killers recently, too. "Watching Vladdy from training camp to now, he's a different player," Cooper said. "Can't say enough about the way the kid is playing."
Ice chips: Cooper, who went to nearby Hofstra in college, has "fond memories" of Nassau Coliseum, having watched many games there. … LW Alex Killorn scored for the second straight game. … RW Ryan Callahan and LW Ondrej Palat were alternate captains. Assistant coach Steve Thomas, a former Islanders standout, was recognized on the JumboTron in the second period.
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.