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Drouin, Lightning have Red Wings on brink

Unlikely star can help Tampa Bay clinch series against Detroit in Game 5

by Dave Stubbs @dave_stubbs / Columnist

DETROIT -- The Detroit Red Wings' remarkable 25-year Stanley Cup Playoff streak will survive this, no matter the outcome Thursday against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

But it's possible the entirety of the Detroit Red Wings' 2015-16 season came down to the need to win the third period in Game 4 Tuesday. And they did not.

Instead, it was the Lightning who won the final 20 minutes, and the game, thanks in large part to Jonathan Drouin, who assisted on all three Tampa Bay goals, including the game-winner from Ondrej Palat with 2:59 remaining.

So the Red Wings, who are playing their 121st playoff series, are in a bit of a ditch, trailing the best-of-7 Eastern Conference First Round series 3-1. Game 5 is at Amalie Arena on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports, FS-D, SUN).

Detroit has done it before, twice rallying from 3-1 down to win a series (1987, 1992). The bad news is they have lost in five games 12 times.

Only once have the Red Wings faced the Lightning in a series, a seven-game first-round loss last season. It seems unlikely Tampa Bay will be pushed to the limit, with two of the last three games against Detroit set for Amalie Arena and Drouin on the Lightning's side.

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The 21-year-old was not in the mood for a history lesson Tuesday, blinking into the TV lights after Game 4 and suggesting he had long ago moved on from "that."

"That," of course, would be the six-week soap opera of his being suspended by the Lightning from January into February, the flashy forward and the team staring each other down over a trade Drouin wanted but Tampa Bay general manager Steve Yzerman didn't engineer.

Drouin has four assists in this series that, for him, has the quality of a storybook, even if he's not leafing through the pages.

"I'm not really thinking about what happened before," he said. "I'm past that point, [I'm] just playing hockey. It feels really good. I don't think it feels surreal. I'm happy to be back helping this team."

Few could have expected to see him in a Lightning uniform this postseason. You couldn't have written the script that had Drouin requesting a trade, being sent down to Tampa Bay's American Hockey League affiliate in Syracuse and getting suspended by the Lightning after he failed to report to an AHL game.

Reinstated in early March after a talk with Yzerman, Drouin played well with Syracuse as the season wound down.

The Lightning summoned the left wing from Syracuse with two games remaining in the regular season, when forwards Steven Stamkos and Ryan Callahan were injured.

Stamkos is out 1-3 months after surgery to repair a blood clot, but Callahan is back from a lower-body injury. Drouin? He's having a great time after breaking the rear-view mirror off during his ride into the playoffs.

What happens to him after the postseason remains to be seen, but no one is fretting about that now, with Tampa Bay eager to avoid returning to Detroit until next season.

"It's not that we're paranoid about coming back to Detroit," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said after Game 4. "It's just rest, travel, jumping on a plane anymore, hotel rooms. That's the part that continues to wear on you."

Drouin is a huge part of the reason Tampa Bay is one victory from winning its fourth playoff series in its past five.

"The one thing that gets missed in all of this is we never, ever gave up on Jonathan," Cooper said. "He took a stand and made a decision. We can debate or not whether he was right or wrong, but [it] turned out he came back and made a choice to succeed and to battle through.

"There was no gratuitous call-up. He earned his way back. He's helping us win hockey games, which we knew all along he could. I'm unbelievably proud of the way he's handled himself with our team, with the staff."

For a moment, Cooper searched for his next words.

"He deserves this."

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