Jonathan Drouin turns corner with strong Game 4 to lead Lightning charge

DETROIT -- There were moments over the course of this season that Tampa Bay Lightning forward Jonathan Drouin wasn't sure he would get this opportunity in the 2016 playoffs. How could he not think that, considering all that transpired over the past few months?

He requested a trade. He was suspended for refusing to report to an AHL game in January. The Lightning didn't trade him. He had a phone conversation with general manager Steve Yzerman, expressing his desire to keep playing. His suspension was lifted. He returned to the organization in Syracuse and eventually worked his way back up to the Lightning lineup.

Now, on Tuesday night, this story with remarkable twists and turns found a completely new course. Drouin looked every bit like the player the Lightning hoped they were getting when they drafted him with the third overall pick in 2013. He sparked a stagnant Lightning power play with three assists, helping lift them to a 3-2 win over the Detroit Red Wings to open up a 3-1 first-round series lead.

So, yeah, not necessarily the way he envisioned this all playing out back in January.

"You're sitting at home, you don't really know what's going to happen," Drouin said after the game. "That's why at one point [I decided] to go back [to] playing hockey, making sure I'm at least playing -- if it's Syracuse, it's Syracuse. To get the call-up is huge -- definitely happy to be back."

It's definitely still a work in progress, but Drouin's breakout game is a sign of just how dangerous this Lightning team still can be, even without injured captain Steven Stamkos.

Nikita Kucherov had a pair of goals, courtesy of nice setups by Tyler Johnson and Drouin. Kucherov's ability to get a dangerous shot off quickly is so valuable this time of year. He leads the NHL with five goals in the playoffs, and if this game was any indication, he and the Lightning are far from finished.

He also made a fantastic cross-ice pass to Drouin, who eventually found Ondrej Palat for the winner with 2:59 remaining.

"That cross-seam pass, everyone starts attacking you for that shot, so I saw one of their D's come right at me and try to block it," Drouin said. "I was looking for a stick, looking for something around the net."

That stick was Palat's, and that pass regained the lead in a game the Lightning controlled for most of the first two periods.

In all, the Lightning had three power-play goals after scoring just one in the previous three games. The success was the result of both film work and a healthy practice session on Monday.

The film work revealed that the Red Wings were susceptible to a play down low while the Lightning were on the power play. In the opening seconds of their first power play, Johnson got the puck exactly where he wanted it, below the goal line with time and some space. He split Niklas Kronwall and Darren Helm with a pass to Kucherov, who one-timed it past Petr Mrazek.

"[We] talked about it before last game, just never had the opportunity to do it," Johnson said. "It's one of those things that we knew was going to be available as long as we could set it up."

The healthy practice session came at a time during which most coaches are using days off in between playoff games to rest their players. The Lighting didn't have that luxury of rest in part because two of the three players they used the most on the power play during the regular season -- Stamkos and Anton Stralman -- aren't playing.

The Lightning talked about integrating new players and getting acquainted with each other, talk that isn't typical this time of year. It was a necessity for the Lightning, who worked strictly on the power play for 30 minutes during practice on Monday.

"It felt like five hours," quipped Johnson.

Regardless, it worked.

It got the Lightning power play going. It also got Drouin involved in the offense. Both developments are completely necessary if this team is going to advance without two of its best players.

Stralman, recovering from a broken leg, accompanied his teammates on this trip to Detroit and looks great. He was spotted walking around with no sign of a limp. Coach Jon Cooper has ruled him out for Tampa Bay's first-round action. After that? We'll see.

With this win, the Lightning move one step closer to at least having the conversation down the road with Stralman, to extending their season by another round. And maybe, in the process, they're rewriting the final chapter on Drouin's time in Tampa.