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Lightning like what they've found in Filppula

by Lonnie Herman

TAMPA -- Can there be much more motivation for an NHL player than to face his former team?

For low-key Valtteri Filppula, going head-to-head with the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday when they visit the Tampa Bay Lightning is not that big a deal.

"I wouldn't call it extra motivation, but it's definitely different to play against them," Filppula said after the morning skate Thursday. "There are a lot of good friends over there and I played there a long time, so it doesn't feel like a normal game."

After eight seasons in Detroit that featured 92 goals and 140 assists, facing the Red Wings would feel different, for both sides.

"Absolutely, we miss him," Detroit coach Mike Babcock said. "You always miss good players when they move on. Val was a real good player for us and played for a long time. There are a whole bunch of them over the years that we ran out of cash and didn't get them done and that's the way life goes."

Life, actually, is going fairly well for Filppula right now. Signed as a free agent in the offseason, the Finnish-born center already has 10 goals and 10 assists, exceeding his point total from last season, when he appeared in only 41 games because of injuries. Filppula is considered an essential part of the Lightning, especially with Steven Stamkos out indefinitely because of a broken tibia.

"I can't say enough about what he has done for us," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "We'd be in big trouble without him."

How big a trouble? Well, it's likely that Tampa Bay would be searching for a center for their top line. With Filppula, they have one.

"I think no one had Val coming here and being the No. 1 center, and he is," Cooper said. "The great thing about it is he is acting like it. He's playing extremely well, he's handling the other teams' best defensive units, he's making plays for us all over the ice and you can just see the confidence brewing in him."

The change has been positive for Filppula too.

"Coming here has been good. It's been a lot of fun," he said. "I feel like we have a good team and we've been playing really well; so far so good."

His play has earned the admiration and respect of teammate Martin St. Louis.

"Obviously, with Stamkos being hurt he's the guy we count on to carry the load up the middle," St. Louis said. "He's a big addition to the team. He has a pretty high hockey IQ and he's fun to watch."

Filppula still maintains his Detroit ties and got to spend some time with his former teammates on their off-day in Tampa.

"I met some of them yesterday for dinner, so it's nice to catch up," Filppula said.

The level of respect is mutual.

"Of course we miss him," Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. "Valtteri was a great player for many, many years for us. A good person and a great guy in the room. He played well for us. It's good to see him do really well here."

Thursday will be the second time Filppula goes up against his old team. The Lightning and the Red Wings met in Detroit on Nov. 9, with the Lightning collecting a 3-2 win.

And don't let that business about it being just another game fool you. In that first game against Detroit Filppula generated six shots on net, a season high.

His success this season is no revelation to St. Louis.

"It doesn't surprise me; I knew he was a pretty good player," St. Louis said. "Coming from Detroit too, it's a pretty good school of hockey, so I wasn't surprised at all."

Cooper, however, was less sure of what Tampa Bay was getting.

"I didn't know him well enough before he came here and I think that was probably good. There was no pre-judgment of how he played. I had watched him on TV on numerous occasions but never sat there and said, 'I'll be coaching that kid one day,' " Cooper said. "But he is one of those guys you almost have to go out of your way to talk to him because he is so low-maintenance that you don't hear much from him."

In any case, Cooper and the rest of the Lightning know what they have now.

"He's been whatever he was advertised and better," Cooper said.

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