Tampa Bay Lightning centerman Cedric Paquette has yet to play this season after sustaining an upper-body injury during the final preseason game against the Florida Panthers, but his return to the lineup is imminent.
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said Sunday Paquette's issue was no longer the upper-body injury but rather getting back into game shape having been out of game action for about three-and-a-half weeks. During Tuesday's practice session following a day off Monday, Paquette rejoined the Lightning's fourth line for the first time since the injury, skating between Pat Maroon and Luke Witkowski. He also saw significant time on the penalty kill during the Lightning's special teams portion of practice, indicating he might be available as soon as Wednesday when Tampa Bay hosts the Pittsburgh Penguins at AMALIE Arena (8 p.m. puck drop).
Paquette said the last two practices have been good for him, and it's been helpful to be able to sustain contact (he shed the red no-contact jersey for good when the team returned home from Boston). He'll see how he feels after Tuesday's practice and use that to gauge whether he's able to return Wednesday.
"I think I am (back into game shape), but there's no such thing as game shape if you don't play a game," said Paquette, who scored a career-high 13 goals and recorded 17 points last season. "I think it's going to take me a couple games to get that game shape, but I feel good. I feel ready physically, but we'll see how I feel tomorrow."
Video: Injury Update | Paquette
Without Paquette in the lineup, the Lightning have been without one of their best defensive zone face-off takers as well as a significant forward on the penalty kill.
"He can play against other teams' good lines," Cooper said. "We trust him throwing him over the boards on D-zone face-offs. The line he was on at the time seemed to have a little bit of an identity. You take him off and you don't realize how much you miss him until he's gone. It's good to have guys healthy. Hopefully tomorrow he'll be good to go."
Paquette's line with Maroon and Witkowski was a difference-maker for the Lightning during its time together in the preseason. That combination continued to have success in the preseason finale against the Panthers until Paquette was upended in the first period and landed with all his weight on his upper body.
"I think we play a game and a half in preseason, and I think we played well," Paquette said. "Changed the momentum a couple times with a big hit. I think we've just got to keep it simple and play our way, and we'll be fine."
Watching the penalty kill from the sideline has been a struggle for Paquette too. That unit ranks 28th in the NHL currently having killed off just 70 percent of opponent power plays. Last season, the penalty kill was a major strength for the Lightning and was the top-ranked kill in the League at 85 percent. The Lightning often built momentum off a successful kill.
Video: Jon Cooper | Post-Practice
That has rarely been the case so far this season, but hopefully the return of Paquette will help stabilize the unit.
"I think it's small details, mental mistakes we did that's cost us," Paquette said he's observed from watching the penalty kill from afar. "I think we don't play that bad, it's just one mistake here and there and we get scored on, a little bit like last year in the playoffs. We've just got to be in it mentally and do our best blocking shots and helping guys."
Paquette said watching Maroon and Witkowski creating collisions and using their big frames to punish opposing players has been entertaining.
He can't wait to join in the fun.
"I miss that part of the game," he said. "It's part of my game too, so I'm excited to play with those two guys and hopefully we can be successful."