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Bolts back together as Eastern Conference Final preparations begin

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

For the first time since late March, the Tampa Bay Lightning had their full complement of players available to train as the team prepares for an Eastern Conference Final showdown against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Lightning captain Steven Stamkos (surgery to treat a type of Vascular Thoracic Outlet Syndrome), defenseman Anton Stralman (non-displaced fracture of left fibula) and forward J.T. Brown (upper-body injury) all practiced with their teammates at the Brandon Ice Sports Forum on Wednesday before the team departed for Pittsburgh later in the afternoon. Stralman and Brown were in regular jerseys and took part in line rushes and drills. Stamkos wore a red no-contact jersey.

After practice, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said it was pointless to speculate when any of the three might be ready for game action.

“Don’t read anything into the jerseys,” Cooper said. “Don’t read anything until you see them in a game. It’s just pointless to talk whether they’re going to play or not.”

Stralman has been sidelined since March 25 since getting his leg caught awkwardly underneath his body as he was pushed backwards by the Islanders’ Anders Lee in a regular-season game. Stralman has yet to make an appearance in the postseason. Cooper had hoped Stralman would be back by now and said before Game 5 of the Second Round series versus the Islanders he was “shocked” he wasn’t yet available.

Stralman said skating a full practice today was a good step in the right direction.

“I thought it was a good day today, to get out there back with the team practicing,” he said. “We’ll see the reaction, and then we can go from there.”

Brown hasn’t played since early in Game 2 of the Detroit series after blocking a slap shot. Brown also skated fully for the first time since his injury.

“It’s too early to tell,” Brown said when asked if he felt ready for Game 1. “This was my first practice out there with the guys. I think it might take a little more before I can even come close to making a decision on that.”

Stamkos said nothing much has changed from his initial timetable. He’s a little over a month into his rehab. Initially, he was told it would be one to three months before he could get back.”

“I’m closer than I was five weeks ago, that’s for sure,” Stamkos said. “Like I said from the beginning, there’s really no set timeline, there’s no set doctors visit that I go tomorrow and they say, ‘OK, you’re ready to go,’ and I’m back. That’s kind of the frustrating part is that it’s a process, and anytime you go through sometime like this with the extent of the procedure that happened, there’s obviously caution moving forward. So, you want to make sure you do your due diligence when it comes to getting opinions and making sure you’re talking to the right people and just doing your homework on issues like this.”

Despite no proclamation that any of the three would be available when the Eastern Conference Final kicks off Friday with Game 1 (8 p.m. puck drop) at Consol Energy Center, Lightning players and coaches said it’s good just to have these important cogs back and practicing with the team.

“It’s big for us,” Lightning forward Brian Boyle said. “It’s big for them too. They’re excited to be out there. We’re excited to have them out there. It’s tough sitting out, it really is. We’re conditioned and wired to play and produce and perform. When you can’t do that, it’s difficult. They’ve worked really hard, extremely hard. Days that we’ve had off, they’re in here for hours at a time. The training staff’s worked very hard to get them back. It’s a nice first step to have them out here for a full practice.”

THE OPPONENT

Late Tuesday night, the Lightning learned they would be playing the Pittsburgh Penguins in the East final following the Penguins’ 4-3 overtime win in Game 6 against the Washington Capitals to take the series 4-2.

Pittsburgh defeated the New York Rangers in five games in the First Round and has won eight of its 11 playoff games, needing just one more game than the Lightning to get to this point.

“It’s the Conference Final,” Boyle said. “This is a good team we’re facing. We should be ready for that.”

The Lightning have had plenty of success this season against Pittsburgh, winning all three games and scoring 15 goals combined.

But the team the Lightning faced in the regular season is a shell of the team the Penguins will suit up Friday. Pittsburgh won 14 of its last 16 games in the regular season to finish second in the Eastern Conference.

Prior to their late-season run, the Penguins were a question mark to even make the postseason.

“I think once the playoffs start, what you did in the regular season against a team doesn’t matter anymore,” Brown said. “A lot more desperation right now, so I don’t think it really mattered who we were going to play. We’re going to get the best of, whatever team we play, we’re going to get the best of what they have.”

The Lightning have gone up against some passionate fan bases in the first two rounds versus Detroit and the Islanders.

The Penguins present more of the same.

“Their fans are passionate, loud,” Boyle said. “They get excited. It’s a great new building. It’s going to be another interesting atmosphere. It’s going to be loud. Those are fun. Those are fun buildings to play in.”

The Lightning won for the first time in the regular season at Consol Energy Center (building opened for play in 2010) in their lone appearance there this season on February 20, a 4-2 Bolts win. The Lightning defeated the Penguins in their only playoff matchup, rallying from a three-games-to-one deficit in the 2011 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals to win three straight, including two at Consol, and take the series.

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