NEWARK, N.J. — Lightning wing Jonathan Drouin zipped through the neutral zone at Thursday's practice, picking up speed as he zigzagged around teammates. He dangled the puck and single-handedly set up a power play.
Assistant coach Steve Thomas, standing at the blue line, watched Drouin blow by and just smiled, almost laughing.
"He's just feeling it," said Thomas, who scored 421 career NHL goals in 20 seasons. "He's got a ton of confidence with the puck."
"That," teammate Cedric Paquette said, "is the Jo we know."
Other than a gash on the top of his nose, Drouin showed no ill effects from a thunderous hit he absorbed from the Islanders' Thomas Hickey early in the second period of Wednesday's 5-4 overtime win in Game 3. The Lightning carries a 2-1 lead in the second-round playoff series into tonight's Game 4 in New York.
Drouin passed all medical tests during Game 3 and returned midway through the third, setting up Nikita Kucherov for the tying goal with 38 seconds left in regulation. That gave Drouin seven assists, tied for the team playoff lead with Tyler Johnson and third in the league entering Thursday.
Paquette didn't think Drouin would return to the game. But how Drouin has looked gives Paquette a flashback.
"I played against (Drouin) in juniors, and that's pretty much the same thing," Paquette said. "He's feeling good right now, and that's good for us."
Drouin was a dominating player in juniors for the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, with 213 points in two seasons (95 games) while displaying the dynamic skill set that made him the No. 3 overall draft pick by the Lightning in 2013.
But it wasn't until after Drouin returned to the Lightning from AHL Syracuse in early April, buoyed by nine goals in a 10-game stint with the Crunch, that he started to feel the same kind of confidence. This time he's on the game's biggest stage.
"It's just instincts now," Drouin said. "Sometimes you tend to think too much. Ever since I came back from Syracuse, it's just playing the game, not thinking about what's going on, who is on the ice. It's just me playing hockey."
Had captain Steven Stamkos not been sidelined with a blood clot since March 31, Drouin might not have gotten a second chance with the Lightning after requesting a trade in November and then refusing to play for Syracuse for six weeks after being sent down in January. He has thrived in a top-six role and become a key cog on the power play.
It's hard to tell how his performance will affect Drouin's future in Tampa Bay. But Drouin is making the most of his opportunity, including bouncing back from the Hickey hit, which the 21-year-old wing had no issue with. Hickey's crushing shoulder blow snapped his head back.
"I think I walked into that one more than he did anything dirty," Drouin said. "I had my head down. It's part of hockey, and it was a good hit."
Drouin downplayed the hit Thursday after practice at the Devils' practice rink at the Prudential Center. And you wouldn't have been able to tell it had happened based on how Drouin looked on the ice.
"I'm sure that hit is going to be shown a few more times," coach Jon Cooper said. "It was one of those that I think looked way worse than it was. (Drouin) got hit in the nose; you know how it is. If you smack (a) camera in your face and hit your nose, your eyes would be watering for a bit.
"But he showed a lot of resiliency coming back, and it's a good thing he did. Because he's a big reason why we pushed that game into overtime."
Thomas thought back to that Drouin sequence in practice and couldn't put his finger on what has clicked with the touted wing, whom center Brian Boyle said is a "different player."
"For me, he 'gets it' out there now," Thomas said. "More than anything, (it's) just being confident playing in the league now. He knows what he's capable of."
As does the rest of the NHL.
INJURY UPDATES: Defenseman Matt Carle and wing Erik Condra participated fully in practice, and there was a chance both could return to the lineup for Game 4.
Carle, who missed the past two games with an undisclosed injury, was paired with Slater Koekkoek during drills. He said he would see how he felt Friday. Condra, who also missed two games, skated on the fourth line with Mike Blunden and Vladislav Namestnikov. He said he was available to play if need be.
"They looked okay in practice," Cooper said. "Hopefully we'll get word that everybody's available, and that's a good thing."
There was no sign of defenseman Anton Stralman (fractured leg) or Stamkos at practice. Right wing J.T Brown (upper body) worked out on his own after practice, using a full stick for the first time.
Contact Joe Smith at j[email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.