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Ondrej Palat returning tonight for Lightning

Lightning key two-way forward back after 26-game absence
DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times
Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Ondrej Palat (18) charges through the neutral zone past Minnesota Wild defenseman Mike Reilly (4) during the first period of Saturday’s (12/23/17) game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Minnesota Wild at Amalie Arena in Tampa.
DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Ondrej Palat (18) charges through the neutral zone past Minnesota Wild defenseman Mike Reilly (4) during the first period of Saturday’s (12/23/17) game between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Minnesota Wild at Amalie Arena in Tampa.
Published Mar. 20, 2018

Ondrej Palat will make his much-anticipated return tonight for the Lightning against the Maple Leafs.

Palat, arguably the team's top-two way forward, has been out with a high ankle sprain since Jan. 20. He didn't want to rush back, but with 10 games before the playoffs, he feels it's enough time to get into game shape.

What's the biggest adjustment?

"Timing," Palat said. "You can't really practice that. Conditioning, I've been working hard at practice. But timing is as big thing. It'll probably take a couple games."

Palat got hurt on what he dubbed an "unnecessary" play by Wild's Jared Spurgeon, who slashed him in the back of the foot. Palat was on a line Tuesday morning with Tyler Johnson and Brayden  Point, likely a top shutdown line.

Palat is also a key cog on the penalty kill, which has struggled to 26th in the NHL (76.8 percent).

"He's a really smart player, one of those guys that plays the two-way game," Johnson said. "He kind of controls the tempo when he's on the ice, calms everything down the way he plays. It's a really big addition."

Coach Jon Cooper said the team was conservative in Palat's return, making sure it wouldn't be an injury that lingered. Tampa Bay was 18-7-1 without Palat.

"He's a 200 foot player," Cooper said. "And he does everything. When you take those guys out of the lineup, he's not a big point producer like some of the other guys are, but he sure makes guys look good. Often times you'll see him on the ice last minute of a game, regardless of the situation. When you don't  have those guys, you miss them."

TOP SPOT

The Lightning already clinched a playoff spot on Sunday, but there are still goals remaining in the regular season.

Tampa Bay is focused on finishing first in the Atlantic Division, and is just three points up on Boston, which has one game in hand.

Winning the division, staying atop the Eastern Conference, would give the Lightning home ice advantage. That came in handy in the 2014-15 playoffs, when the Lightning beat the Red Wings at home in Game 7 of the first round.

"There's still a lot to play for," Cooper said. "Home ice is a big thing. I go back to the year we went to the Cup a few years ago. If we don't  have that Game 7 at home, who knows what happens? I thought it was a big reason why we got through that series.

"You don't necessarily need home ice. But it's a really good luxury when you have it."

HOMETOWN TEAM

Rookie Anthony Cirelli grew up in Woodbridge, Ontario, just a half hour outside of Toronto. He went to a few Maple Leafs games a year. So tonight's matchup with Toronto is special.

"It's pretty cool," he said.

Cirelli has played in all eight games since being an emergency callup Mar. 1 in Dallas. He's got five points and is a plus-two. He'll center the fourth line tonight over veteran Cedric Paquette, who is a healthy scratch.

"He's a smart player and I think when you have that as one of your key assets its really going to help you, where to be, how to react in situations," Cooper said. "Having that hockey sense is big for a player. If we were going to bring Anthony up, it wasn't one of those in one game, out for three, it was in all of them. Let's give him a chance to play, work himself into the NHL."

LINING UP

Andrej Sustr, Jake Dotchin, Slater Koekkoek, Cory Conacher and Peter Budaj will be scratched for the Lightning. Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews is out, and Frederik Andersen is likely to return in net.