The Tampa Bay Lightning will face an important test on Friday when they face the red-hot Minnesota Wild at the Xcel Energy Center.
The Wild are 7-2-1 over their last 10 games and sit atop the Central Division standings with 76 points, five points better than second-place Chicago despite falling 4-3 in overtime to the Blackhawks on Wednesday.
The Lightning have played better of late, winning back-to-back games for the first time since December 22 after defeating Anaheim 3-2 in a shootout on Saturday and following with a 5-0 demolishing of the Los Angeles Kings three days later. But Friday's contest against the Wild will present an even more formidable challenge for the Bolts.
"You'd have to sit here and say they're one of the best teams in the West if not the league," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "(Minnesota head coach) Bruce (Boudreau) has done a great job with them. They're four lines deep. Their goaltender is playing outstanding. This is going to be a real test. It's always been tough to play in their building, but to see what they're doing now, every night you look up they get another two points. This will be a real test for us. But, I'm excited for this. I want to see where we're at. This will be a good gauge."
The Lightning haven't won in Minnesota since the 2010-11 season, dropping four-straight on the road to the Wild and getting outscored 13-4 in the process. Tampa Bay, in fact, has recorded just two wins all-time in Minnesota, its lowest road wins total against any team in the league.
"It's a really, really good team that's playing really, really well," Bolts forward Brian Boyle said. "It's a tough place to play. It always has been, and now their team's improved, so we need to understand it's going to be a big challenge for us."
The Lightning haven't fared well versus Central teams this season, going just 2-5-0, their worst record against any division. The Bolts will play four-straight games against Central foes starting with Friday's Minnesota game.
Video: Cooper on upcoming Bolts road trip
PALAT, KILLORN RETURN: Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn were absent for the Bolts' 5-0 beatdown of the Kings on Tuesday but were back on the ice when the Lightning returned to practice Thursday at the Brandon Ice Sports Forum before leaving for Minnesota.
Palat has missed two-consecutive games with a lower-body injury. Killorn was a surprise scratch from the Kings game. He took warmups but didn't play, missing his first game of the season with an undisclosed injury.
Both looked to be in good shape during Thursday's practice, participating in all drills and wearing regular jerseys, signaling they're able to take contact.
Cooper was optimistic both would be in the lineup versus Minnesota.
"We're hoping Killorn and Palat are probables," he said.
The news wasn't as positive for Tyler Johnson, who played 14:12 of the Los Angeles game but didn't practice with the team on Thursday. The team announced Johnson was taking a body maintenance day, but Cooper indicated he might not be back for the game against the Wild.
"Johnny's still up in the air," he said. "Obviously, he wasn't out skating today, so we'll re-evaluate tomorrow."
Johnson is the last remaining Lightning player to skate in every game this season.
Video: Bishop on building momentum off 5-0 win
DUMONT DELIVERS: Since being recalled from AHL Syracuse on January 10, Lightning forward Gabriel Dumont has injected a dose of energy and dogged determination to the Bolts' lineup. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound winger hasn't missed a start while up with the Lightning, playing in 11-consecutive games and earning the trust of the coaching staff in a short amount of time.
Dumont has come oh-so-close to scoring numerous times during his stint with the Bolts and finally broke through in Tuesday's win over the Kings after redirecting J.T. Brown's centering feed past Kings' goalie Peter Budaj from the slot.
Dumont's goal was his first in a Lightning uniform and second all-time in the league. Dumont joined Tampa Bay as a free agent signing on July 1, 2016.
"I don't know if it was relief, excitement, whatever you want to describe it, but if there was a kid that deserved a goal, it was him," Cooper said. "You're pulling for everybody, but especially him. He's new to our organization. He's had some injuries early on down in the minors and gets his chance and has really been effective for us."
Dumont ranks fifth on the Lightning for hits per game (2.1) and has been of the Bolts' best face-off takers since joining the team, winning 60.3 percent of his draws.