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Atlantic Division notebook

Lightning forward Jonathan Drouin takes huge step; Jaromir Jagr heats up for Panthers

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / Staff Writer

Life has simplified for Tampa Bay Lightning forward Jonathan Drouin. There is no longer any controversy, no longer any fight. A little more than a year after his world turned upside down, Drouin has one focus: playing hockey. And that is certainly going well for the 21-year-old.

Drouin has 11 goals and 11 assists in 30 games this season, with 15 of those points scored in 13 games in December. It has, in some ways, all been an extension of the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season, when Drouin scored five goals and nine assists in 17 games for the Lightning, more than the four goals and six assists he had in 21 regular-season games.

It was a release, and something he wanted to carry over to this season.

"It's awesome," Drouin said Monday. "It's very nice to not have that kind of, I'll call it weight on your shoulders. With all the distraction, with all that happened last year, this year is just playing hockey. My main focus is just that. It's great. Last year, like I said, all the distractions, a little different. But to be playing hockey right now is fun."

It wasn't fun in the beginning, not when the success didn't come immediately and when, after being sent down to Syracuse of the American Hockey League, Drouin asked for a trade. He was suspended by the Lightning on Jan. 20 when he declined to report to Syracuse, and reinstated on March 7.

He then dazzled in the playoffs before joining Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey 2016, and then heading back to Tampa Bay, where he has been a crucial piece for a team hoping to find its way back into the playoff picture in the second half of the season.

Video: STL@TBL: Filppula, Drouin combine for beautiful goal

"It's a completely different outcome compared to last year, obviously what happened," Drouin said. "I feel good this year, I feel confident. Happy to be back here. Those things are behind us, in the past, and it just feels good to be back here in Tampa this year."

And that has been particularly important for the Lightning, who have sustained injuries to several key players, starting with Steven Stamkos and also including Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov and Ryan Callahan.

But the Lightning are 4-1-1 in their past six games, two points back of the Boston Bruins for third place in the Atlantic Division.

"Like I said, I feel confident," Drouin said. "Maybe I'm trying some things that I wouldn't before. Passes are going in lately. Sometimes you're playing well and bounces don't go in or goals don't happen, but lately shooting the puck it's just finding the back of the net. So that's very nice. We're on a little streak now as a team, so it's good to have as well."

Drouin has helped, especially as his confidence has built on itself, as he has seen the ice better, as his knowledge of the NHL and its players has grown. He has become comfortable as one of those players. It's something he always knew he could do, ever since he was selected with the No. 3 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, two spots after his Halifax Mooseheads teammate, Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon. He just had to do it, and do it on a regular basis.

Video: DET@TBL: Drouin rips home PPG on two-man advantage

"I always had [that confidence]," Drouin said. "As a person, you always think you can do stuff. You're drafted for a reason, I was drafted high for a reason."

But that doesn't mean he's fully developed. He's continuing to adapt, continuing to build on the chemistry he's formed with linemates Valtteri Filppula and Brian Boyle, whom he credits for some of his success.

"There's always room for improvement," Drouin said. "The biggest thing for me is just being consistent. Some games aren't going my way, trying to do too much, [I need to] keep it simple. The biggest thing for me is just being consistent night in, night out, just every shift you've got to bring some aspect of the game. Sometimes it's not offensive, but you've got to be useful and help your teammates out there."

Jagr heating up

Florida Panthers forward Jaromir Jagr is suddenly on a bit of a run, as he expected to be.

The NHL's second all-time leading scorer passed Mark Messier on Dec. 22 against the Boston Bruins with his 1,888th point after starting the season slowly. It had frustrated him, as he felt better, faster, more in tune with the current NHL, but simply wasn't seeing results.

But Jagr has seven points in his past six games, including a goal and an assist against the Dallas Stars on Dec. 31. He has seven goals and 16 assists this season.

Two months ago, when Jagr had five points in 13 games to start the season, he said, "I lost some weight and I start stretching and I feel the best I've felt. Even the numbers not there, but I still believe in the stuff I do. I feel the best I've felt probably in 15 years. … It's just kind of different, like 15 to 20 pounds less is a lot, so I have to learn how to play with that. But I think I feel like I did the right thing. It doesn't show it, but I believe it."

Jagr, 44, is still not on track to match his numbers from last season, when he scored 27 goals and 39 assists for the Panthers, especially in terms of goals, but it's certainly better than it was. Just as he had anticipated.

Video: BOS@FLA: Jagr passes Messier for second in NHL points

Stat pack

There is a tight race behind the Montreal Canadiens in the Atlantic Division, with the Ottawa Senators and Bruins currently holding the No. 2 and No. 3 spots. But the teams behind are creeping up; the Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs and Panthers are bunched within two points of each other at 42, 41 and 40 points. … Winnipeg Jets forward Patrik Laine started quickly, but his fellow top draft pick has caught up to him; Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews is tied for second in the NHL (with Los Angeles Kings forward Jeff Carter) with 20 goals. Laine has 19.

Video: DET@TOR: Matthews shines at the Centennial Classic

Games to watch

Montreal Canadiens at Nashville Predators (Jan. 3, 8 p.m. ET; FSN-TN, SNE, RDS, NHL.TV) -- Shea Weber returns to Nashville for the first time since the former Predators captain was traded to Montreal in the offseason.

Detroit Red Wings at Chicago Blackhawks (Jan. 10, 8:30 p.m. ET; WGH, FSN-D, NHL.TV) -- These teams don't get to face each other as often as they once did, but a rivalry remains a rivalry.

Pittsburgh Penguins at Ottawa Senators (Jan. 12, 7:30 p.m. ET; RDS2, TSN5, ROOT, NHL.TV) -- One of the top teams in the Atlantic meets one of the top teams in the Metropolitan Division.

Montreal Canadiens at Minnesota Wild (Jan. 12, 8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SNE, RDS) -- Two of the best defenses in the NHL - and two the best goaltenders, in Montreal's Carey Price and Minnesota's Devan Dubnyk - go head-to-head.

Toronto Maple Leafs at New York Rangers (Jan. 13, 7 p.m. ET; MSG, TSN4, NHL.TV) -- The high-flying Rangers take on the precocious Maple Leafs at Madison Square Garden.

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