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Drouin 'feels great to be back' with Lightning

Forward expects to build off game-winning goal in return to NHL

by Mike G. Morreale @MikeMorrealeNHL / Staff Writer

Drouin beats Kinkaid five-hole

TBL@NJD: Drouin nets an insurance goal in the 3rd

4/7/16: In his first game back with the Lightning, Jonathan Drouin beats Keith Kinkaid through the five-hole from the left circle in the 3rd

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NEWARK, N.J. -- Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper would prefer if this new chapter in the career of Jonathan Drouin turns out to be his finest piece of work.

It certainly got off to a rousing start Thursday when Drouin scored his first NHL game-winning goal, generated a Lightning-high four shots, and played 15:41 in a 4-2 win against the New Jersey Devils at Prudential Center. It was his first NHL game since Dec. 30.

"This is a good story; this is the way you want it to go (for Drouin)," Cooper said.

The Lightning will no doubt look to the 21-year-old for offensive support. He had nine goals and 10 points in his last 10 games with Syracuse of the American Hockey League before being recalled Wednesday afternoon by Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman.

Yzerman considered recalling Drouin last week after he learned forward Steven Stamkos would be sidelined 1-3 months with a blood clot near his right collarbone, but a lower-body injury kept Drouin out of an AHL game on April 3.

Tampa Bay entered Thursday with two goals or fewer in four of the past six games, and a power play that ranked 26th in the NHL (16.1 percent). The Lightning are also missing defensemen Anton Stralman (broken leg) and Victor Hedman (upper body), and forward Ryan Callahan (upper body).

Drouin's tumultuous season included being dropped to the fourth line with Tampa Bay (Dec. 30), reassigned to Syracuse (Jan. 2), a trade request revealed (Jan. 3) that went unfulfilled (Feb. 29), walking out on his Syracuse teammates and a suspension without pay (Jan. 20), a phone call to Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman that resulted in his return (March 7), and a one-game scratch for missing a meeting (March 23).

For one night, at least, the negative vibe that hovered over Drouin dissipated into thin air.

"It's been a weird season, but it feels great to be back here playing hockey; that's the thing I wanted to do and something I realized sitting at home," Drouin said. "I'm trying to play the same game I was playing in Syracuse. I need to shoot more and get more chances to the net. I shot the puck to the net more [on Thursday] just like I did in Syracuse."

After a tentative start, Drouin began to find his groove in the second period with center Vladislav Namestnikov and left wing Alex Killorn.

"I've always liked playing with Jonathan; he's so dynamic out there," Killorn said. "I think he was confident. He told me he was trying to go high glove but went five-hole (on his goal). It's one of those things where I think he's got a hot hand right now and it's great that he can come in and help the team out with a game-winning goal."

Drouin, the No. 3 pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, drew a roughing penalty on Joseph Blandisi with some feistiness at 3:58, and generated his first good scoring opportunity with a wrist shot at 8:35 of the second. He gave the Lightning a 3-1 lead after controlling a drop pass from Namestnikov in the right circle before taking a wrist shot that beat goaltender Keith Kinkaid between the pads 3:50 into the third. It was Drouin's third NHL goal of the season, first since Dec. 2.

"The NHL speed is completely different than AHL speed," Drouin said. "Guys are flying right beside you and you don't have that much time. The first was more of an adjustment, but as the game went on I thought our line played well, moving the puck and getting chances. That's when I started feeling my old self a little bit."

Drouin, who has averaged 15:14 of ice time in 20 NHL games this season, said he's gradually gaining an understanding for what it takes to succeed.

"I just need to be more consistent," he said. "You can't take a shift or a game off in the NHL. Something is going to happen on the ice if you're not ready or not on your game. The biggest thing I realized was you have to be consistent and work hard every game."

That's music to the ears of Cooper.

"It's hard to compare his performance on Thursday with when he last played with us in December because our team dynamic has changed, but I did like how he wanted the puck, he commanded the puck, and was shooting the puck," Cooper said. "Those are things he needs to do to be successful and he was doing them [Thursday]. If he's going to keep doing that, things are going to work out for him."

Lightning defenseman Matt Carle was asked if a motivated Drouin might alleviate some of the offensive pressure on the other forwards.

"It can, but a guy like [Stamkos] is not replaceable," Carle said. "[Drouin] adds another dimension to our group and we'll see as he gets comfortable here if he can help the power play and try to fill the skates of Stamkos as much as possible. He can't bring that big heavy shot on the power play that Stamkos has, but he's a guy who can make plays out there."

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