ANAHEIM, Calif — With Jonathan Drouin having missed six consecutive games, and 11 of the Lightning's past 15, coach Jon Cooper made sure to check in on the touted wing often in his much-anticipated return Wednesday.
"And he was ready to go," Cooper said.
Boy, was he. Drouin was dazzling in lifting Tampa Bay to a much-needed 2-1 win over the Ducks at the Honda Center. Drouin, 20, sidelined due to two injuries, showed little rust in scoring the game's first goal and setting up the winner with a slick assist on Jonathan Marchessault's power-play tally in the second period. That has given a huge boost in confidence to Drouin, the 2013 No. 3 overall draft pick.
"That first period, my lungs were a little heavy there," said Drouin, 20. "You sit on the bench and … you don't want to go back on. But as the game went on, I felt better and better. Definitely happy with it."
There were many reasons the Lightning won Wednesday, especially Ben Bishop, who continued his dominance of the Ducks with 32 saves. The 6-foot-7 goalie, who is 6-0-1 against Anaheim, made one glove save late that led Ducks star Corey Perry to jokingly ask if his arms were of legal length.
"You need your goaltender to be your best player, and when he is, usually good things can happen," Cooper said. "That's what happened."
But for a shorthanded Lightning team that's struggling to score — it had two goals waved off Wednesday — Drouin provided a sizable spark.
"He looked fresh," Cooper said. "He had his legs, he was moving, he was making plays. … For missing as much as he has with injuries, to come back and have a game like that, it's a really good sign."
Drouin opened the scoring two minutes into the second on a sick shot from up close, finding a tiny hole between goalie John Gibson's pad and blocker.
"When he got the first goal, it seemed like it was a weight off everyone's shoulders," Cooper said.
Two potential go-ahead goals were waved off, Nikita Kucherov's deflection due to a high stick and an Alex Killorn power-play goal on a goalie interference call on Ryan Callahan (the latter upheld on Cooper's first coaches challenge of the season). But on the same power play, Drouin set up the winner, sending a perfect feed from behind the net in front to Marchessault.
"Right in my wheelhouse," Marchessault said.
"You know what he's capable of," Bishop said of Drouin. "I'd like to see him do it more often. Hopefully he can come back and build off this and keep this going."
Drouin looked a lot like the determined, confident Drouin the Lightning saw from the first day of training camp, the one who scored four preseason goals. Drouin, playing alongside captain Steven Stamkos, racked up six points in the first five games of the regular season, seeming destined for a breakout year.
But Drouin went pointless in the next five games, then missed five with a lower-body injury. At times it felt like Drouin was on a short leash with Cooper, logging just 9 minutes, 26 seconds, of ice time Nov. 12 against the Flames. Drouin's 13:48 Wednesday was more than only Erik Condra and Marchessault among Lightning forwards.
Cooper has said it's hard to find out what a player can do logging 8 to 10 minutes a night, a reason Vladislav Namestnikov was elevated to a top-six role in recent weeks. Namestnikov earned it with his play, "Outstanding," Drouin said.
And the line of Namestnikov, Drouin and Kucherov was flying Wednesday.
"All three of those guys all have speed, all got skill, and they can play the game," Cooper said.
It'll be interesting to see what happens when forward Tyler Johnson (undisclosed injury) comes back, possibly this weekend, as well as forward Ondrej Palat (left ankle) next week. Drouin is just happy to be playing again, with Wednesday, he hopes, becoming a springboard.
"The confidence is there," said Drouin, who has two goals and six assists in 15 games. "Points come. Points sometimes don't come. It's hard to say. But if I keep playing that way, it's definitely going to be good."