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McDonagh and Rutta back at Lightning practice

The Bolts have been without both defensemen for the last month

by Bryan Burns @BBurnsNHL /

Until last night's 2-1 loss to the NHL-leading Boston Bruins, the Tampa Bay Lightning had given up at least three goals in their previous seven contests.

During a four-game losing skid from February 20-27, the Lightning allowed 21 combined goals.

Clearly, the Lightning haven't been as sharp defensively as they were when they went on 10-game and 11-game win streaks in the last three months. Over one seven-game stretch of that franchise-record 11-game win streak, the Bolts allowed only eight combined goals.

That's how the Lightning want to defend, particularly as they gear up for what they hope is a lengthy postseason run. That they've slipped of late is a bit of a concern with one month remaining before the start of the playoffs.

But fret not Tampa Bay fans.

Help is on the way.

Ryan McDonagh was a full participant at Tampa Bay's practice session Wednesday at AMALIE Arena, the veteran defenseman wearing a regular jersey too, a signal he could be close to a return. On trade deadline day February 24, Lightning general manager Julien BriseBois stated McDonagh was ten to 14 days away from returning. Wednesday was nine days since McDonagh's updated timetable.

Jon Cooper said following Wednesday's practice McDonagh won't be available when the Lightning host the Montreal Canadiens at AMALIE Arena Thursday, the final game in the team's season-long five-game homestand. But the chances McDonagh rejoins the team when they hit the road for three games in four days -- starting with another pivotal showdown against the Bruins Saturday - seem likely.

"A guy like McDonagh who's so big for our PK, so big for our team defensively, especially when you think about big matchups and offensive lines he's going to be playing against, I battled with him in the corner and he seems like he's stronger than ever," Lightning forward Alex Killorn said following Wednesday's practice. "Really excited to get him back."

Video: Jon Cooper | Practice 03.04.20

From January 16 to February 6 with McDonagh in the lineup, the Lightning gave up just two goals a game, third fewest in the NHL over that stretch.

Since February 6, when McDonagh blocked a shot against the Pittsburgh Penguins' Evgeni Malkin and suffered a lower-body injury, sidelining him for the past 12 games, the Lightning are allowing three goals a game.

Having McDonagh back will be a big boost for the defense.

So too will the return of Jan Rutta.

Rutta also skated with the Lightning Wednesday but is likely further away from a return as he wore a red no-contact jersey during practice. Rutta has missed 13-consecutive games after being run into from behind and into the boards during a win over the Vegas Golden Knights February 4. Since becoming a regular in the lineup, Rutta's been a mainstay on the Bolts' top pair alongside Victor Hedman and has been a valuable contributor to the penalty kill.

Rutta was two to three weeks away from returning BriseBois said back on February 24. He likely won't play on the upcoming road trip but after that should be in the day-to-day range.

"Rutta I think is a little bit further away, but he's a guy that helps us out a ton in all assets of the game," Killorn said.

Once McDonagh and Rutta return - and hopefully no other injuries crop up on the blueline - the Lightning can focus the final month of the season on once again becoming that stout defensive team that doesn't give up many chances and makes life easy on its goaltenders, a style that will prove beneficial come playoff time.

"They're great players for our team. They're great leaders," Yanni Gourde said. "It's good to see them on the ice with us. It just gives us a little bit of a boost, especially with the last week or few weeks where we've struggled for a little bit. I think it's good to see those faces back, and we're excited to have them back."

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