Tampa Bay Lightning right wing Ryan Callahan has missed the last 15 games with a lower-body injury and 23 of 38 games overall this season but could return tonight when the Bolts host the Winnipeg Jets at AMALIE Arena, the fourth game in a season-long, five-game homestand.
Callahan participated in the Lightning's morning skate on Tuesday, the second-consecutive day he's practiced in full with the Bolts, and Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper said the veteran forward is "probable" to play against the Jets.
"It's been a while and had some ups and downs throughout the way, but it's definitely good to be back," Callahan said.
Sidelined since November 27, Callahan said he'll probably need some time before his game is where he'd like it to be.
"Anytime you miss a lot of time like this, it's the timing is the biggest thing and getting used to the game speed again," he said. "No matter how much conditioning you do, there's nothing like going out there and playing, taking hits and giving hits."
Callahan leads the Lightning for hits per game (2.6) and is one of the Bolts' best penalty killers. He said he won't have to change his game to protect against the possibility of re-injuring himself.
"Everything feels good and nothing's limiting me, so I should be able to play the way I want to," he said.
In other Lightning injury news, Cedric Paquette returned to practice, joining Tuesday's morning skate and wearing a regular jersey but is still out according to Cooper. Paquette has missed five-consecutive games with a lower-body injury and six of his last seven games.
Brian Boyle also won't play tonight, sitting out just his third game of the season. Boyle suffered a lower-body injury midway through the Lightning's 3-1 victory over Carolina on Saturday and didn't return.
"He's definitely not playing tonight, and I don't know, I'm not incredibly comfortable saying he's going to play on Thursday, so hopefully he gets better here soon," Cooper answered when asked about Boyle's availability this week.
ERNE TO MAKE DEBUT: Adam Erne got a good start to 2017 when he was recalled from AHL Syracuse on New Year's Day.
Erne received more good news today: He'll make his NHL debut tonight when the Bolts host the Jets.
"It's really exciting," Erne said after his first official NHL morning skate. "I guess you can imagine I'm feeling a little bit of everything, but I guess exciting would probably be my major emotion."
Erne said he found out he would play tonight when he entered the locker room and saw his number 73 up on the board.
"My whole family's going to be here: my mom, my dad, my brother, my sister, my grandmother," Erne said. "It will be exciting for them too. It's just as much of an accomplishment for them as it is for me. I'm happy for them, and they're happy for me."
Erne will have plenty of experienced teammates to draw from regarding making NHL debuts. Brayden Point, Tanner Richard and Matthew Peca have all played their first game in the league this season for the Lightning. If Erne plays tonight as expected, he will be the fourth player to make his league debut this season for the Bolts.
"Did I ever suspect that we would need this many guys this early for this long? Not a chance," Cooper said. "But, we have, and they've done great for us. So hopefully it'd be really nice to see number 24 out there tonight, but unfortunately you're not going to see (Boyle) out there tonight. (Paquette's) still on the shelf, (Point), (Stamkos), you go down the list, (Bishop). There's still a laundry list of guys that are out, but slowly trying to get these guys back. The big one for me was to get Callahan back in because it feels like we've barely seen him this year, and he's a big part of our team."
Erne has played in 31 games for Syracuse this season and has recorded eight goals and 18 points, ranking fourth on the Crunch for goals and fifth for points.
"You think about guys that have played in the American League, guys like (Kucherov) went down there and played, (Drouin) played whatever it was, 10 to 20 games, and found their way up. For 95 percent of the guys that play in the American League, it takes them a year or two to get their feet wet in pro," Cooper said when asked what Erne has shown in Syracuse to earn his shot. "All Adam has done is work hard, learn the pro game, get better and now he's deserved his time up here. Part of it too is letting guys down there develop at the young age. It's not rushing them up, and some guys have been rushed up due to necessity but not many. Adam's a guy that has just really honed his game down there, and (I'm) actually really, really looking forward to seeing him up here because he deserves this shot."
ICE CHIPS: Andrei Vasilevskiy is expected to make his sixth-consecutive start tonight in net for the Lightning. Vasilevskiy is 4-1-1 since Ben Bishop went down with an injury on Dec. 20…The Bolts got their first win in their last 12 games when scoring less than four goals in Saturday's 3-1 victory over Carolina…Jonathan Drouin finished December 8-7-15, a career high for goals, assists and points in a single month for the third-year pro. Drouin's 15 points were tied for 13th among NHL players for December scoring…Tampa Bay is just 1-3-0 against Central Division teams this season but finally broke through versus the division in its last game, a 5-2 come-from-behind win over St. Louis on December 22.