TAMPA — The Triplets are back together.
The touted Lightning line, which had a magical run last season then was split up in early November, was reunited for Wednesday's practice, and presumably for tonight's game against the Senators. A big part of that is that the line's engine, wing Ondrej Palat, could return after missing more than four weeks with a left ankle injury.
"Maybe there's a little spark there," wing Jonathan Drouin said.
The Lightning (13-12-3) needs one, still hovering outside playoff position and facing an Ottawa team that's six points ahead of it for third place in the Atlantic Division (automatic playoff berth). Palat, one of the league's most underrated players, had left a huge void, a key cog in all situations.
"If you grab any team in the league and take arguably one of their top three most important players on your team, take him off and whatever those coaches would say, I'd reiterate," coach Jon Cooper said. "He's a big part of our team."
Like the Lightning, the Triplets struggled to start the season, with just three even strength points in the first 13 games (after tallying 96 last season) before getting separated Nov. 3. Injuries have taken a toll, with Tyler Johnson missing eight of the past 10 games with two separate injuries. Nikita Kucherov ranks second behind Steven Stamkos with eight goals.
"I think we weren't playing the way we wanted to play (earlier in the season)," Johnson said. "I think now, at this point of the season, I think everyone feels better. I know I feel better now than I did at the beginning of the season. We can take advantage and hopefully just take off from there."
Said Kucherov: "It's going to be fun to play with them again."
With Johnson and Palat returning, the Lightning could shift its lines around. Captain Steven Stamkos was back at center alongside Alex Killorn and Drouin — who has been a dangerous playmaker since returning Dec. 2 in Anaheim.
Cooper said the team has been "treading water" with all the injuries but must make a run in the next three weeks, starting tonight.
"We're behind them, looking at them right now makes it even bigger game for us," wing Ryan Callahan said. "We're chasing these guys, it's essentially a four-point game."
The Lightning is still without Cedric Paquette (upper body), who is out another week or two, Cooper said. Cooper said wing Erik Condra (lower body) is in "the same boat," out at least a week, which is disappointing for the former Senators forward. "Bad timing," Condra said. "Obviously I was excited, had this one marked on the calendar."
Palat said it's possible, but not 100 percent, he'll play tonight. He said it was tough watching his former linemates while injured, and hopes "we can get it going again."
"It's three talented guys, last year we saw what they're capable of," Callahan said. "They didn't get off to the start they wanted as a group, but they didn't lose it. They know how to play together. You can just see in practice how they find each other. So it's exciting to see them back."
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