TAMPA — Ondrej Palat was back at practice Tuesday sans the red no-contact jersey. Nikita Kucherov skated. So did Jonathan Drouin and Braydon Coburn and Victor Hedman. Even Cedric Paquette made a brief appearance on ice.
The Lightning begins a crucial five-game homestand tonight against the division-leading Canadiens as healthy as it has been in weeks.
"It was just great to see the amount of players (practicing) that we have not been able to see over the past month," coach Jon Cooper said.
Of those who returned Tuesday, Cooper said only Paquette remains questionable for tonight.
That bodes well for a team fighting its way upstream to gain a playoff spot.
"This five-game homestand, let's be honest, this is a big one for us," Cooper said. "We have to win games here. We weathered that major road-heavy first third of the season. Now we've got some home games. We've got to win them."
Cooper said last week that his team's margin for error has disappeared. He mentioned it again Tuesday.
That means the Lightning can't afford any more efforts like the 4-0 loss at Washington just before the Christmas break.
"That was a night off," Hedman said. "We can't have more of those. That's unacceptable."
Having the regulars back should help guard against those types of games.
The injuries have hurt this team, though Cooper and his players refuse to make excuses. They talk about the depth in the organization and how well the players called up from AHL Syracuse have played. Still, the Lightning hasn't played its regular lineup since the night in mid November when Steven Stamkos hurt his knee, and the subsequent injuries to Ryan Callahan, Ben Bishop, Kucherov and others led to disjointed lineups and disjointed play.
The team has 79 man games lost by injuries this season.
Because of that, it wasn't until a western Canada road trip this month when the Lightning found what Cooper called its "identity."
"Because of the injuries we've had, it's taken some of the players time to reestablish themselves," Cooper said before his team took the ice Friday at Washington.
It was on that trip when the Lightning tweaked its defensive approach. The team paid more attention to detail. The goaltending began to settle down. The Lightning took three points on the three-game trip then won both games at home before heading to Washington.
"As soon as we started simplifying our game and playing north-south, not figuring we had to score every single time we went up the ice, things changed," Cooper said. "We haven't pointed in every single game, but we thought we could have."
The result was the team felt it was back to playing Lightning hockey.
"Going down a goal, down two goals, we're not, 'Here we go again.' We're fighting back and finding ways to get a point, two points out of a game," Hedman said. "We're on the right track, and I think that's encouraging."
The trick is to keep it going. Coming out of the Christmas break with five consecutive home games is a good time to start.
"We put ourselves into a position where we have to win a lot of hockey games down the stretch," Hedman said. "This homestand, obviously, is very big for us."
Note: The Lightning recalled center Matthew Peca from AHL Syracuse.