CALGARY - Many times during the past two seasons, Lightning defenseman Nolan Pratt was the odd man out.
A solid player.
A respected teammate.
A consummate pro.
But in a Tampa Bay lineup that almost always featured six defensemen, Pratt was the seventh. Maybe he still is. The difference during the Stanley Cup final is Pratt no longer is the odd man out.
He's an essential element.
Pratt, who entered the lineup when Jassen Cullimore was injured in the third game of the playoffs, remains in it against the Flames even with Cullimore's return. Tampa Bay is playing with seven defensemen because Pratt has been too good to sit.
"Pratt came in when Jassen was hurt and has done a great job for us," Lightning coach John Tortorella said. "This time of year, it's not so much depth chart as it is chemistry. To yank Nolan out of there right now with the things he's done in our first few rounds is not right. He's done too many good things for us."
Pratt is thrilled to be playing.
"It's very satisfying," said Pratt, a stay-at-home defenseman who is plus-2 in 15 playoff games. "I don't think I've changed anything I've done. Torts and I talked during the season when I wasn't playing, and I've never tried to change anything. I'm certainly excited to have the opportunity to play now and if he's saying he can't take me out, that's great."
Pratt, a seventh-year pro in his third season with the Lightning, played 58 games during the regular season, but promptly took a seat on the bench when the team traded for veteran Darryl Sydor in January. Pratt was not happy about losing his spot in the lineup, but reacted like a professional. He worked hard and waited for his chance.
That chance came in Game 3 against the Islanders when Cullimore, the team's top defenseman, left the game with a broken bone in his wrist.
"He's played very well, so I don't know how you could take a guy like that out of the lineup," defenseman Cory Sarich said. "He stepped in, and we've won some key games and he's been a big factor in all that."
But as the Lightning continued to advance, the bone in Cullimore's wrist continued to heal. Near the end of the East final against Philadelphia, Cullimore approached Tortorella about playing in Game 6. Tortorella was unwilling to disrupt team chemistry, but came up with another approach for Game 7.
He played seven defensemen, opting to sit the fourth-line center.
"I was playing my fourth-line center two or three minutes and I have Jassen Cullimore, who has been one of our top defensemen and is ready to play," Tortorella said. "We're happy the way it's working."
Pratt said he tried not to look over his shoulder as Cullimore's injury improved.
"Maybe to an extent," he said. "At the same time I felt I was playing well. I guess I was never expecting to come out of the lineup. If you sit there and think, "Is he coming back?' it's going to affect you on the ice.
"Obviously, everybody wants to play and contribute and that was the biggest part for me all year. When you're sitting out, it (stinks). That's the only way to say it. To be a part of it right now feels great."