The Tampa Bay Lightning have suffered a number of injuries to key players over the last couple of weeks but are finally showing signs of getting healthier with Game 1 of their opening round playoff series against the Detroit Red Wings just two days away.
Taking part in their first playoff practice session at the Brandon Ice Sports Forum on Monday, the Lightning had most of their roster on the ice. Victor Hedman (upper-body injury), Ryan Callahan (lower-body injury) and Nikita Kucherov (undisclosed) all wore regular jerseys and participated in every drill.
Among the Lightning players with shorter-term injuries, only Tyler Johnson (upper-body injury) was absent.
Of course, captain Steven Stamkos and defenseman Anton Stralman remain out long term and are unlikely to play all in the First Round.
“The more you see these guys skate, the better chance they have of playing,” Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “Johnny’s still the one that’s up in the air. He couldn’t go today, so hopefully he’s a little bit better for tomorrow.”
Hedman missed the final three games of the regular season but has practiced with the team a couple of times now and said he’s ready to go for Wednesday’s Game 1 vs. Detroit.
“I’m feeling good, feeling well-rested,” Hedman said. “I had some good skates with the guys in both Jersey and Montreal, so I feel very excited. I feel well-rested in my body and mind.”
Callahan was back in training Monday for the first time since getting hurt April 4 in a game against the New York Islanders. The veteran winger suffered a scary moment in practice when he went down near goal and slid hard into the boards behind the net. He got up after a couple of seconds, though, brushed himself off and skated hard to join the rush the other way, which he capped by scoring past Ben Bishop, drawing stick taps from his teammates.
Callahan smiled after the sequence, apparently unaffected by the tumble.
“It was a good skate today,” Callahan said. “I feel good.”
Johnson wasn’t available for comment, but the forward is day-to-day and hoping to return in time for the opening game of the playoffs.
“I was lucky enough to be off the ice, so when he came out, I was able to talk to him, and it looked like he was going to be ok,” Bishop said, referring to the regular-season finale in Montreal when Johnson was injured. “Hopefully, when everything heals up here, he’ll be alright.”
Despite the number of injuries piling up, the Lightning have plenty of confidence heading into their First Round series against Detroit.
A lot of that assurance stems from the man bringing up the rear.
Ben Bishop finished the 2015-16 regular season with the best goals-against average (2.06) in the NHL and tied John Grahame (2003-04) for the Lightning franchise record for GAA in a single season. Bishop’s GAA is more impressive though having played in 32 more games than Grahame.
Bishop’s .926 save percentage ranked second in the league during the regular season, and he finished tied for fourth in the NHL for wins after collecting No. 35 in New Jersey on Thursday, April 7.
When Lightning GM Steve Yzerman announced Steven Stamkos would undergo surgery to treat a type of Vascular Thoracic Outlet Syndrome near his right collarbone and would miss one to three months, he said the team would rely more heavily on its goaltending to survive.
Bishop, for his part, looks up to the challenge.
“We’ve got to find different ways to win, but obviously we feel very comfortable with Bish back there,” Hedman said. “He’s a calming factor on this team as well. We know he can stand on his head and save games for us. That’s going to be huge for us.”
Bishop proved himself to be one of the best goaltenders in the league last year during the postseason. He blanked Detroit 2-0 in a do-or-die Game 7 to close out the Red Wings in the First Round then shut out the Rangers in back-to-back road games in Game 5 and Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final to backstop the Lightning to the Stanley Cup Final.
“Anytime you’ve got a guy like Ben backing you up and in your net, you have confidence in front of him,” Callahan said. “You see how well he played this year. I think coming off of a great playoff last year, you didn’t think he could play much better than that, and he seems to have raised the bar again. It gives us a ton of confidence to know he’s back there.”
ODDS AND ENDS
Callahan said the Lightning have been looking forward to returning to the playoffs since the second they lost to Chicago in Game 6 of last year’s Stanley Cup Final. “The first thing you think of (after losing in the Final) is you want to start again and you want to get back to where we are,” he said. “It’s a long 82-game schedule, and now we’ve gotten back to that point. Nothing’s going to be given to us.”…Bishop expects Detroit to come out gunning for the Lightning after the Red Wings fell in seven hard-fought games in last year’s First Round playoff series. “They’re going to have a chip on their shoulders,” he said. “We eliminated them in the First Found, and they’re going to have that in the back of their minds, kind of like us and Montreal last year. We know they’re going to have a little bit extra motivation I think. We’ve just got to be ready for Game 1.”