Tampa Bay Lightning left winger Ondrej Palat has missed the last 26 games after sustaining a lower-body injury late in a loss at Minnesota on January 20, but the versatile forward will make his return to the Lightning lineup tonight when the Bolts host the Toronto Maple Leafs at AMALIE Arena (7:30 p.m. puck drop).
Palat took morning skate line rushes today for the first time since his injury, skating alongside Brayden Point and Tyler Johnson on the Lightning's second line. Following morning skate, Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper confirmed Palat will indeed be back in the lineup for regular season game No. 73 against the Lea
"(26 games) is a tough stretch to miss when you get hurt on a 5-on-3 power play standing in front of the net," Cooper said. "But we're happy to have him back. We'll see how much he plays and how much impact he has. We waited this one out a little bit longer just to make sure he's fully ready because there's a bigger picture besides tonight 10 games from now and we want to make sure he's putting his best foot forward then."
Palat was scheduled to miss six to eight weeks from the time of his injury. The end of eight weeks was Saturday's game against Boston, meaning it's taken Palat a little bit longer than expected to return to the lineup. But part of that was due to the fact the Lightning were playing well enough they didn't need to rush Palat back. And they wanted to make sure he was fully healthy so the issue wouldn't linger into the postseason, which the Bolts clinched late Sunday night.
"It's been tough," Palat said after morning skate. "The injury's been a little frustrating. It feels good when you're walking around, but then you skate and it doesn't feel that good. It's frustrating but guys played really good and put us in a great position."
Palat said it could take a couple of games to get his timing back, but he should be back to his normal self well before the Bolts begin their postseason run.
"I feel fresh but I know a couple games are going to be a little rough with the timing," Palat said. "But I'm excited to be back and ready to go."
Palat registered eight goals, 22 assists and a plus-17 rating through 46 games so far this season. He ranks third among Lightning forwards for blocked shots (42) and seventh overall on the Bolts for takeaways (30) despite missing over two months of the season.
"He's a 200-foot player," Cooper said. "He gives you everything he has. He plays all special teams, so when you take those guys out of the lineup, he may not be the big point producer some of the other guys are but he sure makes guys look good. Often time, you'll see him out on the ice last minute of a game, regardless of the situation. When you don't have those guys you miss them. We got by without him. One man doesn't make a team. This is a team sport, but you'd like to have your whole arsenal and he's part of that."
Palat's versatility may be his biggest asset. He's one of the Lightning's best two-way forwards and is often matched up against the opposition's best scoring line because he has the ability to shut them down. He sees action on the Lightning's second power-play unit, and he's one of the team's top penalty killing forwards, a unit that has struggled of late and could certainly use his presence back in the lineup. He's also a bit bigger than the typical Lightning forward, and he plays a hard-nosed game that is tough to replicate when he's out of the lineup.
"He's a very important player for our team," Bolts defenseman Victor Hedman said. "He's one of those guys that plays very physical. He plays a full 200 feet. He kills penalties and is on the power play. He's one of those players that gets the whole team going. Very good with the puck, strong on the puck and just a complete player, one of those players that we obviously missed having around. It was fun to see him out there again today and in pregame taking reps on the power play and taking reps for morning skate…We're obviously very excited when he gets back."