It would have been easy for Ryan Craig to sulk when demoted to AHL Norfolk near the end of training camp. Lightning coach Rick Tocchet said perhaps 90 percent of NHL players sent down do just that.
"But he'd never do that," Tocchet said of the forward. "That's the character guy Ryan Craig is."
Craig worked hard at Norfolk, scored seven goals in 11 games and Thursday was back with the Lightning. "I looked at it as a stepping-stone to where I wanted to be," he said. "Obviously, I wasn't happy with my game. It's still a work in progress, but I think I used it the right way, as motivation."
It has been a difficult stretch for Craig, 27, who because of knee and back injuries played just 61 games combined the past two seasons. Craig said he is healthy and feels as good as he did in 2006-07, when he scored six goals in Tampa Bay's first nine games.
Tocchet said Craig, a 2002 eighth-round draft choice, must still work on his speed. But he takes faceoffs, kills penalties and likes to get in front of the net.
He also has a little more perspective after three-plus years with the Lightning, thanks to his stint with the Admirals. "It was just go play and prove that I can play minutes," said Craig, who in two games since his return averaged 9:56 of ice time, "prove that I can deal with the grind and stay healthy.
"I didn't look at it like I was going to be down there forever. I looked at it like a step to get back to where I was and where I wanted to be physically and mentally as an NHL hockey player."
No wonder Tocchet said, "Ryan Craig is a favorite of mine."
LONG TIME: Tampa Bay (6-4-5) hasn't been two games over .500, not including overtime losses, since Nov. 19, 2007.
SIGNS OF LIFE: The power play, which was in a 3-for-31 rut, has converted 3 of 10 chances the past two games. But RW Marty St. Louis said the unit will not be consistent until it gets more than one shot per trip into the offensive zone.
"The puck retrieving, the puck battles in the offensive zone, we haven't been that sharp," he said. "We've been one shot and out. We have to retrieve pucks and win battles to get second and third opportunities instead of having to go back in your end zone. It takes time off the clock. It breaks the flow."
Said LW Ryan Malone: "We've got to get back to the basics of shooting the puck and hunting it down."
Malone said the team hoped to be a top-five power play after a preseason in which it converted 24.1 percent of its opportunities. Entering Sunday, Tampa Bay was 21st in the league at 17.6 percent.
"The good news is we're still getting points (in the standings) and we don't think (the power play is) very good," he said.
CLUTCH PLAYER: Malone not only entered Sunday with a league-high four winning goals, he is just the eighth player, and first since the Flyers' Brian Propp in 1982-83, with four in a team's first five victories.
Tocchet said it is not a surprise: "You look at the goals he gets, they're usually around the net; rebounds, deflection goals. That's something you try to preach to guys is get to those areas, and Bugsy will do that."
"Close games, you try to go out there and get the go-ahead goal or insurance goal, whatever the case may be. That's all it is," said Malone, who has 10 goals. "I was fortunate to have a couple go in at the right time."