Lightning coach Cooper: ‘I’m just unbelievably proud’ of Drouin

Ondrej Palat scored late on the power play and the Tampa Bay Lightning defeated the Detroit Red Wings to push them to the brink of elimination.

Jonathan Drouin has finally been unleashed.

The Tampa Bay Lightning forward was a force on Tuesday, finishing Game 4 with three assists in a 3-2 victory over the Detroit Red Wings in their first-round series.

A secondary assist on Nikita Kucherov‘s goal to open the scoring, followed by a brilliant return pass on Kucherov’s second, and then another great feed to Ondrej Palat for the eventual game winner showed why general manager Steve Yzerman was so reluctant to part with the flashy winger at this year’s trade deadline.

“The one thing that gets missed in all of this is we never ever gave up on Jonathan,” said Lightning head coach Jon Cooper, after his team moved within one game of Round 2.

Drouin’s relationship with the Lightning, and Cooper, has been rather complicated since the 21-year-old was drafted third overall in 2013, but a freak injury to Steven Stamkos opened the door in Tampa’s top six and Drouin has taken full advantage.

It seemed just a few months ago that if Drouin was ever to reach his full potential, it would have to come with a different club.

He started the season with the Lightning, but injuries and a lack of ice time in Tampa led to his eventual demotion.

On Jan. 2 Drouin was sent down to the Syracuse Crunch of the AHL, and a day later his agent, Allan Walsh issued a statement revealing his client’s desire to be traded.

Less than three weeks later, Drouin was suspended by the team after failing to report to a Crunch game in Toronto. He held out until March 8, when he finally returned to play in the AHL, saying things would be resolved in the summer.

He only made his return to the NHL when it was announced that Stamkos would be out long term after a blood clot was found in his right shoulder with just a few games left in the regular season.

Since then, Cooper hasn’t been afraid to throw Drouin into the fire, giving him time on the power play (where all three of his points were scored), and giving him at least 17 minutes of ice time in every game of the playoffs so far.

“There was no gratuitous call-up, he earned his way back,” said Cooper. “And now he’s earning his ice time and now he’s helping us win hockey games which we knew all along he could.

“And I’m just unbelievably proud of the way he’s handled himself… he deserves this.”

The Lightning will have some tough decisions to make as they try to keep Stamkos from moving on while locking down a young core that includes Kucherov, Palat, Tyler Johnson, Alex Killorn, Victor Hedman and Vladislav Namestnikov, who are all due new contracts either this summer or next.

Drouin could make losing Stamkos a little bit easier to swallow if he can play at a high level on one of Tampa’s top two forward lines.

He’s starting to look like he can.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.