It is hard to look back at the beginning of the 2013-14 season and think that forward Ondrej Palat once wondered if he would fill a Tampa Bay Lightning roster spot.
"I didn't know if I'd make the team," he said.
Now, Palat has been honored as the NHL's Rookie of the Month for January.
Palat paced all rookies for points (16) in 15 games in the first calendar month of 2014. He also strung together an eight-game point streak (four goals, six assists) from December 23 to January 9, which set a new franchise record by a Lightning rookie. Palat was back at it again at the end of the month with nine points (two goals, seven assists) in five consecutive games from January 19-30.
And he was in good company. The runner-ups for the Rookie of the Month nod included fellow teammate Tyler Johnson as well as Colorado Avalanche rookie Nathan MacKinnon, both Calder Trophy candidates. Netminders Darcy Kuemper and Frederik Andersen, from the Minnesota Wild and Anaheim Ducks, respectively, were both in contention for the acknowledgement too.
While Palat found himself as a third-line winger at the beginning of the campaign, Stamkos' injury led to line shuffling by head coach Jon Cooper. That movement eventually led to his upgrade to the first line. Johnson would make the transition as well, but Palat said that captain Martin St. Louis' advisement in his top-line role was a major contributor to his growth.
"I was on the third/fourth line getting 10 minutes a game and now I have 20 minutes of ice time," Palat said. "When you have time on the ice like that, you're playing better, you're more into the game and feeling better.
"Playing with Marty and Johnny helped my confidence grow, too. Now I'm playing with confidence and I'm more used to the NHL game."
Earlier on, Palat felt like he was lagging behind, a feeling that is often expressed by young players when making the transition from minors to the pros. Yet working on the top line allowed him to skate more minutes in a game and in turn, his skillset exponentially grew.
"I used to tell myself 'I can make the play,'" he said. "Now as time goes on you don't think that you can make that play, you just make that play and skate with more confidence."
STAMKOS' LEG RESPONDS POSITIVELY TO MONDAY'S CONTACT
A day after testing his body with the most contact he has faced yet, Stamkos said he felt the best yet after Tuesday's morning skate with the team. He made a similar statement Monday, which means he continues to move closer to his return.
“Today to do those battle drills in the corner, going against big guys like [Victor] Hedman and [Ryan] Malone and knowing it felt really good after, that was another mental hurdle,” Stamkos said. “Right now a lot of it is mental, physically it’s feeling a lot better, very minimal pain.”
Stamkos also told Cooper he was hoping to play in a game with the Lightning before the Winter Games, which leaves Saturday against the Detroit Red Wings as his target date.
He said that his decision to play in Sochi will be a "close call" and if he did not feel ready he would not take the opportunity away from somebody else, who is otherwise healthy, to play in the Olympics.
OTHER ODDS 'N ENDS
Ben Bishop will start Tuesday night versus Team USA captain and NHL First Star of the Week, Zach Parise, and the Minnesota Wild.
If the Bolts capture their 17th road win against the Wild it would tie them with the New York Rangers for most road wins in the Eastern Conference.