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Ondrej Palat returns to lineup tonight versus Red Wings

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

For the second consecutive day, Tampa Bay Lightning forward Ondrej Palat skated in a normal practice jersey ahead of the Bolts’ third meeting this season with the Detroit Red Wings.

Following the morning skate, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said Palat is good to go for tonight’s game. Palat suffered a lower-body injury 10 days ago at Montreal. He was initially scheduled to miss two to three weeks but was able to expedite his return.

“He gives us much more stability up front,” Cooper said. “I think he’s, that line with Johnny and (Kucherov), he’s a big part of that line and a lot of the down low stuff that goes on, puck retrievals, everybody does it, but Palat seems to be in there a little bit more than the other two. He makes that line work, so getting him back is big for us.”

Palat said he felt good when he woke up this morning after practicing yesterday for the first time since the injury and didn’t experience any soreness.

“I wouldn’t play if there were some limitations,” Palat said. “I think I’m 100% ready, and I can’t wait.”

Palat missed three games, the Lightning going 1-1-1 in his absence.

“It’s always bad for a hockey player to be injured and can’t play,” said Palat, who is second on the Lightning with 37 assists while also netting 15 goals. “I felt bad when I can’t play. I was watching the guys playing and the locker room and you’re just so excited to come back.”

In other injury news, Cedric Paquette will miss his fourth game with an upper-body injury. Paquette practiced for the second straight day wearing a red no-contact jersey.

Cooper said he was unsure when Paquette might be cleared for contact.

Paquette was also injured 10 days ago at Montreal and was scheduled to return in 10 to 14 days.

DEALING WITH DETROIT

The Lightning have found success so far this season against Detroit, winning both previous matchups. Tampa Bay left Joe Louis Arena with a 4-3 shootout victory (Nov. 9) in the first meeting and hammered the Red Wings 5-1 in the return at Amalie Arena (Jan. 29).

“We’ve matched up well against Detroit so far,” Cooper said. “And we have to be engaged in the game. Our D has to be up ice. We have to gap on them well. We can’t give them a lot of time for some of their star players to roam around the ice because they can control, they’re a puck-controlling team, so we have to take pucks out of their hands all the time. When we’re doing that, we have success against them.”

The Lightning have fared well not only against Detroit but with the entire Atlantic Division, the exception being the Boston Bruins.

Tampa Bay’s record against the Atlantic is 15-3-3. The Lightning are 0-1-1 versus the Bruins, the only divisional team the Bolts have a losing record against.

“We’ve had pretty good success against teams in our division,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “For whatever reason, we find ourselves starting those games well. I think the last game (against Montreal), just home ice in general, we’re starting games a lot better, getting out to a lead, with the exception of the Winnipeg game where I think we learned our lesson.”

POTENTIAL PLAYOFF PREVIEW

Tonight’s game between the Lightning and the Red Wings could be one we see four weeks from now in a potential playoff matchup.

If the postseason were to begin today, Detroit would be Tampa Bay’s opponent in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals as the second and third place teams in the Atlantic.

“A lot of things can happen between now and the end of the season,” Stamkos said. “I think we saw that last year with seedings and playoff lives coming down to the last couple games. It always seems to be that way. We’ve still got 11 (games). I know it’s gone by pretty quick, but I don’t think there’s really any focus on potential playoff matchups right now.”

Stamkos said players don’t start looking at possible postseason opponents until the calendar flips from March to April.

“Maybe when we get down to the final five games, you start peeking a little more, but (Detroit) is a team that didn’t play that well last night probably in their minds, and, coming off a back-to-back, we have to expect their best,” Stamkos said.

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