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Pregame Notebook: Tyler Johnson could return before All-Star break

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

Tampa Bay Lightning All-Star center Tyler Johnson skated for the first time on Thursday since suffering a lower-body injury in a 7-3 loss to Philadelphia earlier in the week.

Johnson wore a red no-contact jersey during Tampa Bay’s morning skate prior to tonight’s game against Edmonton at Amalie Arena and didn’t participate fully.

Lightning head coach Jon Cooper, however, is encouraged that Johnson could make a return to the lineup before next weekend’s All-Star break. Johnson was named to his first All-Star Game on Saturday.

“Very encouraged,” Cooper said. “Tough kid.”

Johnson said he’s unsure when he’ll be able to play in a game.

“That’s up to the medical staff and the coaching staff,” he said. “I’m just trying to get better every day, trying to feel better and see where that lands me.”

Johnson was unsure whether he’d be able to participate in the All-Star Game, which takes play Sunday, January 25, in Columbus, Ohio.

“It’s really cool, but if it’s missing an All-Star game or missing a regular-season game, I’d miss the All-Star game before that,” Johnson said. “I’m more worried about the team right now. That’s priority No. 1. Whatever’s going to help the team, whether it’d be going to (the All-Star Game) or resting, that’s what you have to do.”

The news is slightly less encouraging for Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman.

Hedman was also hurt in Philadelphia, leaving late in the first period with a lower-body injury. He wasn’t at the Bolts’ morning skate on Thursday, and Cooper said Hedman will require a longer recovery period than Johnson.

“(Johnson’s) a lot closer than 77,” he said. “But, it’s better to have one closer than both not close.”

When asked if Hedman wouldn’t be available until after the All-Star break, Cooper didn’t commit.

“I don’t know, too hard to speculate that,” he said. “He’s for sure out tonight [vs. Edmonton].”

TRIPLETS PLUS ONE

With Johnson out of the lineup, Steven Stamkos moved into the center spot on the Triplets line against Boston on Tuesday and scored his 24th and 25th goals of the season.

Stamkos, who has praised Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat throughout the season, was even more complimentary after playing on a line with the pair.

“It’s pretty impressive,” Stamkos said. “I think those guys, their ability to make plays is what’s so special. Kuch is the kind of guy that can stickhandle his way out of trouble, that is so smart. Some of the passes that he makes, he’s got an unbelievable shot, but, for whatever reason, he loves dishing it. He’s just such a smart player. Pally is kind of the workhorse where he’s physical, he goes in there. He’s not the biggest guy, but he’s fearless. He’s a great playmaker as well.”

Stamkos will pivot Palat and Kucherov again tonight with Johnson out.

“Guys go down with injuries, other guys have to step up, guys have to play with different players,” Stamkos said. “It was obviously nice to have some success [in Boston]. It would have been nicer to do it in a win, but hopefully we can do both tonight.”

Stamkos seems to have hit his stride with five goals over the past five games, but the Lightning captain doesn’t feel he’s doing anything different from the beginning of the season.

“It’s tough to explain, sometimes you feel like you’ve made a great shot and the goalie gets a piece of it, it goes off the post, it goes off the helmet,” Stamkos said. “Sometimes you just try to shoot it on net and it goes in. Everyone’s like ‘oh wow, what a great shot,’ and you were just trying to get the puck on the net. I think for me, it’s getting those chances and getting those opportunities, and I have been the last four or five games. It’s nice to see them go in. As long as I continue to get those chances, I know that they’ll eventually go in.”

Asked whether he’s now officially a member of the Triplets, Stamkos joked: “I don’t think so. I’m over 5-foot-10, so I stand out a little bit on that line.”

DOG DAYS OF JANUARY

Cooper said this current stretch, from post-Christmas to Easter, can be difficult for teams because of the redundancy of the season.

“You’re sitting around that 35-, 40-game mark, the newness of the season is kind of over, you’re into your groove a little bit, but the finish line seems so far away...” Cooper said. “It’s a weird stretch.”

It’s also a perilous stretch because losses can pile up in a hurry.

“It can be an exceptional time if you roll through that, or it can be a dangerous time, which it was for us last year, it was a little bit of a dangerous time for us,” he said. “And then we rallied I think after the Olympics and the trade, we kind of strung some games together, but it’s for sure a dangerous time.”

The Lightning have yet to allow losing streaks to form so far this season, never dropping more than two games in a row, a big reason why the Bolts have been one of the best teams in the NHL.

Tampa Bay will have to defeat Edmonton tonight to avoid its first three-game losing skid of the season.

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