The Tampa Bay Lightning held their first practice since a 4-1 victory over the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday following a five-day break in the schedule.
The bye week was both beneficial and detrimental to the Lightning. The Bolts were playing some of their best hockey of the season before the break, netting points in four-straight games and winning three of their last four. The time off, therefore, could derail the momentum the team had generated.
During Friday's training session at AMALIE Arena, the Lightning worked on shaking off the rust from the layoff while re-acclimating themselves to the habits and effort that highlighted their recent run of good play.
Video: Johnson on returning to Bolts' lineup
"Anytime you take five days off, especially in hockey because it's not like you can jump on a bike or run down the street and stay in the kind of shape you need to be, these guys are in phenomenal condition," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "Hopefully they get a little skate today, and they're right back at it. It's urgency time now for us. We had some good things going before the break, and now we've just got to continue."
Conversely, the break gave dinged up players a chance to heal and the team time to escape from the mental grind of the season. In particular, Lightning center Tyler Johnson, who missed the last two games with a lower-body injury, was back on the ice for Friday's practice and wearing a regular jersey, signaling he might be ready to return to the lineup when the Bolts take on the Dallas Stars at the American Airlines Center on Saturday.
"If you're going to look at some positives of having the break, guys get to heal up a little bit," Cooper said. "And it wasn't just Johnny, it was other guys as well, so that should be a good sign for us because I think we play our last 26 games here in 51 days, so it's a little bit better than a game every other night and we're going to need these guys to be healthy."
Johnson was a full participant in Friday's skate and practiced for the duration, a good sign he's ready to go. Johnson centered a line with Vladislav Namestnikov on his left and Nikita Kucherov to his right during line rushes.
"I felt good," Johnson said. "We'll see how it goes tomorrow and go from there."
Video: Cooper on Bolts after Bye Week
NHL teams haven't fared particularly well in their first game back coming out of the bye week, going a combined 3-8-1.
"The bye week gave us a chance to refresh and try to get rejuvenated a little bit, but at the same time, we know other teams' records coming out of the bye week," Johnson said. "We talked about that before practice. I thought we had a good practice. Everyone looked sharp. You've just got to keep building the momentum that way."
Part of the reason for the Bolts' recent resurgence revolves around the play of its goaltenders. Ben Bishop has won three-consecutive starts for the first time this season and had a shutout streak of 1:32:13 during that span.
Andrei Vasilevskiy was sensational in his last outing, a 37-save performance in a shootout loss at Western Conference-leading Minnesota.
"So often in years past, all they do is bail us out, our goaltenders," Cooper said. "There's times this year we could have bailed them out and didn't. It's a situation where we've got two great guys back there, and you talk about digging your heels in, those guys have played extremely well for us the past month. I think that's a big reason we've been pointing."
The Bolts have also been getting solid performances from their defense, which has allowed five combined goals in the last four games, the least they've given up over a four-game stretch this season.
Video: Bishop on match-ups with Dallas and Denver
"I think the big thing for us is the D and forwards are working together," Johnson said. "We're not spending a lot of time in our defensive zone. We're just flipping pucks out and really playing more in the neutral zone and offensive side. When you do that, obviously it really helps. Teams have a tough time getting into the zone. If you can get it out, it's better for us."
The Lightning enter the final 26 games of the season in seventh place in the Atlantic Division with 57 points, seven points behind third place Boston. The Bolts are six points back of Toronto for the final wild card spot. The gap could have been considerably worse coming out of the break, however.
"We look back and sit here and say, 'Well, how far down the standings did we fall being away for these five days?' And it actually wasn't all that bad," Cooper said. "And so, now we're through this break, and now it's time to start climbing the ladder again."