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Pregame Notebook: Drouin and MacKinnon to faceoff for the first time

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper didn’t elaborate on the nature of the undisclosed injury that will keep defenseman Matt Carle out of tonight’s game against the Colorado Avalanche at Amalie Arena.

Cooper did say, however, Carle is “probably out until the (All-Star) break.”

“I was concerned when (Victor Hedman) was going to be through the break as well, and now he’s back,” Cooper said. “(Tyler Johnson) I thought would be more than one game, so hopefully that’s how it works out with Matt.

“But, honestly, I don’t know for sure.”

Carle left midway through the Bolts’ 3-2 victory over Edmonton on Thursday and didn’t return. He had played in 347 consecutive NHL games entering Saturday, but that streak will likely vanish after tonight.

HEDMAN RETURNS?

Fellow Bolts’ defenseman Victor Hedman skated for the second day in a row during Saturday’s morning skate and said he feels good enough to play tonight versus the Avalanche.

His availability for tonight will be a game-time decision according to Cooper.

“Everything went well, and I’m planning on playing tonight,” Hedman said. “But, like coach said yesterday, it’s a game-time decision, and we’ll see how it feels tonight.”

Hedman missed two-straight games since suffering a lower-body injury during the first period of the Bolts’ 7-3 loss in Philadelphia.

The 6-foot-6 blue liner said he didn’t feel any limitations during the two practice sessions, and he wouldn’t put himself out on the ice unless he felt 100 percent.

“Compared to how (the injury) felt the last two days, (today’s) a big difference, obviously can feel the progress,” Hedman said. “Everything went well out there today.”

WITKOWSKI ARRIVES

Luke Witkowski said he was in Syracuse on Friday preparing for the Crunch’s matchup against Binghamton later that night when he got word he was being called up to the Lightning.

The Holland, Mich., native joined the Bolts once before this season on Tampa Bay’s first road trip of the season when Hedman was injured in Vancouver. Witkowski didn’t play, but he said the experience fueled him to get back.

“You get so close to playing and you don’t actually get into the game, it makes you want to work that much harder,” he said.

Witkowski could make his NHL debut tonight.

Or not.

Cooper wouldn’t confirm Witkowski’s spot in the lineup tonight against Colorado but did say he’d like to get him in a game before the All-Star break.

“He’s definitely going to get a chance. We have to,” Cooper said. “What if Matt’s out for long term? What if Heddy can’t come for a while? So you have to get these guys in at some point, just like Nesterov, we’ve got to see what we have because if it’s going to be, who knows, if things are going to be long-term you’ve got to get these guys in.”

Witkowski, 24, brings a physical presence and a much-needed right-handed shot to the Bolts’ blue line. He played in 36 games for the Lightning’s AHL affiliate in Syracuse this season and recorded a goal and six points along with 75 penalty minutes, which ranks fourth on the Crunch.

“The kid’s passion for the game, his personality, all those things, he’s got that fire in the belly,” Cooper said. “You love kids like that.”

Witkowski was one of the last players to get sent to Syracuse out of Bolts training camp. The disappointment of not making the team perhaps contributed to Witkowski’s slow start to the season, but he’s picked his game up considerably of late.

“I think I’ve made my game a lot more simple…I think it’s shown a lot in my game,” he said. “I was kind of a minus there for a bit, and I’m more in the plus column now.”

DROUIN, MACKINNON REUNITE

Long-time friends Jonathan Drouin and Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon had dinner in Tampa Friday night.

The two played parts of two seasons together with the Halifax Mooseheads in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. In 2012, Halifax rallied in a second-round series during the Memorial Cup playoffs from a three-games-to-none deficit in a seven-game series to beat the Quebec Remparts, coached at the time by current Avalanche head coach Patrick Roy.

Drouin scored the overtime game winner. MacKinnon had the assist.

“They both play really well together,” Roy remembered of the prolific duo. “Drouin is a great passer, sees the ice very well, moves the puck well and (Nathan) had a lot of speed. I thought that was a good mix for both of them.”

A year later, MacKinnon had a hat trick and Drouin five assists when the Mooseheads won the Memorial Cup over the Portland Winterhawks in the final game.

Tonight, the pair will be on opposite sides when they play against each other for the first time in the NHL.

“It’s going to be weird a little bit,” Drouin said. “Obviously, we played together for a couple years and we’re good friends off the ice. It should be a fun thing. I’m sure he’s not going to give me a lot of space out there and I’ll do the same.”

MacKinnon was the first overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft; Drouin was No. 3.

MacKinnon scored 24 goals and had 39 assists in his debut season last year with Colorado and won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie. Drouin was sent back to Quebec for another season before joining the Lightning out of training camp this season.

“I thought he could have played (in the NHL) last year. He’s so good,” MacKinnon said of Drouin. “He had a great year at Halifax. He tore it up, especially in the playoffs, but I thought he was ready last year. But, obviously, it’s a tough league. It’s not easy. I think they want to be patient with him, which is great.”

MacKinnon said he’d like to get a picture at some point tonight of himself lined up against Drouin, the two former QMJHL stars reuniting in the NHL.

“It’s going to be a cool memory…” MacKinnon said. “It’s happened pretty quick and pretty young, but we’re both pretty excited tonight.”

Drouin said tonight’s not about him versus MacKinnon, but rather the Lightning against the Avalanche and a chance for the Bolts to grab two more points before the All-Star break.

“He’ll probably give me a slash on the wrist, and we’ll go from there,” Drouin said with a smile.

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