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Cooper: Nikita Kucherov needs to shoot more

With the Lightning struggling to score, trailing by goal Thursday, wing Nikita Kucherov came in on a 2-on-1 with defenseman Luke Witkowski.

Kucherov passed, and the rush ended. Kucherov, the team's leading scorer, has been passing a little too much lately, including racking up zero shots on goal in Thursday's 2-1 loss in San Jose.

In the last four games, Kucherov has as many shots (eight) as fourth-line wing Gabriel Dumont.

"The one thing with 'Kuch, we've talked with him, he's got to shoot more," coach Jon Cooper said. "He's somebody that knows how to put the puck in the net and is probably being a little too unselfish and trying to set up other guys, which he's done a heck of  job of. And the other guys aren't finishing as well.

"When he's got the puck on his stick, you want him to pull the trigger. And if he does that a little bit more, things will go well for him."

Kucherov has said it's a habit dating to his days growing up in Russia to always look to set teammates up if they're open. He still has a team-high 17 goals, two in the last eight. He was reunited with Triplets linemates Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat for Friday's practice, so that could help. …

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Victor Hedman could return Saturday

The Lightning could get a big boost Saturday against the Coyotes with top defenseman Victor Hedman nearing a return.

Hedman, who has missed the last three games with an illness, was a full participant in practice Friday and said he felt good. Good enough to play Saturday?

"We'll see," Hedman said. "(Friday) was a good day. Too early to tell."

Hedman, the team's second leading scorer, declined to elaborate on what ailed him. It has sidelined him since Monday, when Hedman left warmups in L.A. early.

"It's tough to go through," Hedman said. "Probably the first time I've been sick like this."

Hedman felt he turned the corner the past couple days, getting in a workout on Thursday. And he's been impressed with how the Lightning has played without him, allowing just four regulation goals the past three games.

"The guys have been playing incredible the last three games," Hedman said. "We limited their scoring chances. We haven't scored many goals but still got three out of six points. We're doing good things defensively, keeping them to the outside. It was a big step in the right direction...

"Whenever I get back I've got to make sure I feel ready to play."

 

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Jonathan Drouin delivers another 'big-time' goal

Jonathan Drouin, center, celebrates with teammates Vladislav Namestnikov (90) and Alex Killorn (17) after scoring against the Sharks.

AP photo

Jonathan Drouin, center, celebrates with teammates Vladislav Namestnikov (90) and Alex Killorn (17) after scoring against the Sharks.

It's hard to believe that just one year ago, Jonathan Drouin was out of hockey.

Drouin, 21, was at home in Montreal, holding out during his trade request saga.

It was the best trade the Lightning never made, as where would it be without him now?

Drouin is playing at another level, becoming a go-to-guy for Tampa Bay as it fights for its playoff life. The game appears to have slowed down for the touted wing, who looks like he's back in juniors with Halifax. Opposing teams just don't have an answer for him. Just ask San Jose, which became part of Drouin's highlight reel Thursday night.

On Drouin's game-tying power play goal, he took a play that was dead, and brought it back to life. After losing the puck at the blueline, Drouin collected himself in the neutral zone and blew past two San Jose defenders, including Marc-Eduoard Vlasic, before beating goalie Aaron Dell.

"That's just a big time skill play by a big time skill player," coach Jon Cooper said.

Drouin was, as usual, nonchalant when describing the goal, his 14th goal of the season: "I just got some speed. Vlasic was standing still so I just went wide, took it to the net."

But make no mistake, not many players could have pulled it off. …

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Victor Hedman to miss third straight game

Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman's illness will force him to miss his third straight game tonight against the Sharks.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman's illness will force him to miss his third straight game tonight against the Sharks.

Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman's illness will force him to miss his third straight game tonight against the Sharks.

Coach Jon Cooper had hoped Hedman would be ready for tonight, but that's not the case. Hedman had came out for warmups Monday against the Kings before leaving early. He's with the team in San Jose, just not ready yet.

Asked if Hedman could play by Saturday, Cooper said they're taking it "game-by-game."

"It's unfortunate," Cooper said.

The Lightning could use Hedman against the defending Western Conference champion Sharks, who have arguably the league's top defenseman in Brent Burns (19 goals, 27 assists). "An all world player," Cooper said. "He can really dictate a game."

The Lightning (21-20-5) has taken three of four possible points in the first two games of this trip, and has played better overall in its last four. Tampa Bay has allowed seven regulation goals the past four games.

"We're clearly in desperation mode," Cooper said. "It's shown in our play a little bit. Everybody understands where we're at. Every single game, we have to get points." …

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Sorting through NHL trade deadline silly season

Before you jump to the Ben Bishop for Kevin Shattenkirk, back, conclusion, hit the pause button, Joe Smith writes.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Before you jump to the Ben Bishop for Kevin Shattenkirk, back, conclusion, hit the pause button, Joe Smith writes.

With the NHL trade deadline just over a month away, it can be silly season when it comes to speculation.

At every press box, people take notice of what team's scouts are at what game. When it's a GM that attends, it can raise even more eyebrows. …

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Victor Hedman out against Kings due to illness

Victor Hedman came out for warmups and left early.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Victor Hedman came out for warmups and left early.

The Lightning can't catch a break.

Just as Tampa Bay prepared to open a make-or-break six-game road trip, it found out top defenseman Victor Hedman would miss Monday's game against the Kings. Apparently, Hedman is sick, which is why he came out for warmups and left early.

The Lightning hopes Hedman feels better fast, as he's one player it can ill afford to lose. And Tampa Bay plays Tuesday in Anaheim. Hedman, a first-time All-Star, ranks second on the team in points (38) and averages more than 24 minutes a game. On a blueline that lacks depth, Hedman is the stablizing force, and plays both power play and penalty kill.

With Hedman out, both Luke Witkowski and Nikita Nesterov were in the lineup.

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J.T. Brown one of many impacted by pioneer Willie O'Ree

Lightning wing J.T. Brown will always remember the time five years ago when he met Willy O'Ree.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Lightning wing J.T. Brown will always remember the time five years ago when he met Willy O'Ree.

Lightning wing J.T. Brown will always remember the time five years ago when he met Willie O'Ree.

"Pretty incredible experience," Brown said. "The way he's pioneered the game for young African Americans."

O'Ree was the first African American to play in the NHL when he debuted for the Bruins in January 1958. Brown, 26., as one of 17 blacks in the NHL, has been inspired by him.

That's why it's so special - and fitting - to see O'Ree, 81, drop the ceremonial puck today on Martin Luther King Day. Brown, who is not playing due to an upper body injury, hoped to catch up with him.

"He broke so many barriers, made it possible for me to play the game that I love," Brown said. "Anything I can do to keep growing the game, keep doing the things he did to help, that's something I'm willing to do.

Brown has taken an active role trying to grow the game in Tampa Bay, joining the team's "Guide the Thunder" mentoring program, where he helps at-risk kids. There's still hope to bring more African Americans to the NHL.

"Obviously you can see fromm 1 to 17 is moving in the right direction," Brown said. "But even Willy would say that's not enough." …

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Lightning Strikes! podcast: Make-or-break road trip

Tyler Johnson battles in front of the net during the Lightning's recent loss to the Blue Jackets.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Tyler Johnson battles in front of the net during the Lightning's recent loss to the Blue Jackets.

Joe Smith sets up the Lightning's current make-or-break road trip in our latest Lightning Strikes! podcast. The next six games will go a long way in determining the team's playoff fate. He'll also discuss Ryan Callahan's latest injury setback, the upcoming trade deadline and the Marty St. Louis jersey retirement ceremony. Listen here:

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Ryan Callahan out four weeks

Veteran wing Ryan Callahan is expected to miss four weeks, the Lightning announced Sunday.

And it's fair to question when, and if, Callahan, 31, plays again this season. Or, for that matter, if he should.

Callahan continues to be bothered by his hip, which was surgically-repaired back in June. He's played in just 18 games this season, the last coming Jan. 7 in Philadelphia. It's been frustrating for Callahan, who can't seem to shake the soreness. He's tried resting it, missing over a month from Nov. 28-Jan. 3. But after playing in just three games, Callahan is out at least another month.

If this persists, the Lightning could decide to put Callahan on long-term injured reserve and shut him down for the rest of the regular season, which would provide some cap relief for March's trade deadline. Callahan's cap hit ($5.8 million) is second on the roster behind Ben Bishop ($5.95 million), as Steven Stamkos' ($8.5 million) is on long-term injured reserve.  

There's no sense, at least at this point, the Lightning is ready to do that. Maybe after another month rest, Callahan comes back. I don't think the team truly knows for certain when Callahan is returning. …

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Lightning entering make-or-break road trip

The time is now for the Lightning to make a run.

You can argue it might already be too late. Tampa Bay's chances of making the playoffs drop with each passing week, down to 18-percent, per blog Game Score, which used 10,000 simulations of the remainder of the season to project point totals.

But this six-game, 13-day road trip, which begins Monday against the Kings, could be a make-or-break moment for the preseason Stanley Cup favorites.

Gone is any margin for error. There's no room for moral victories, like playing better Thursday and Friday, when the Lightning (20-20-4) got two of four possible points in a two-game homestand.

"The results are all that matters," center Brian Boyle said. "We need to change our attitude a little bit, kind of find our mojo, carry ourselves with a little bit more confidence. We can score quick goals. We can come from behind, jump out to leads and bury teams. We've done that in the past with this group.

"We have a really long road trip coming up. We should be greedy, should try to win every game and come back (to Tampa) with a different tone. A little bit of strut in our step." …

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Vasi in net on St. Louis Night, also concern for Callahan

Marty St. Louis celebrates after scoring a goal during a 2011 game against the New Jersey Devils in Tampa.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Marty St. Louis celebrates after scoring a goal during a 2011 game against the New Jersey Devils in Tampa.

It’s Marty St. Louis Night tonight when the Lightning retire then raise his No. 26 to the Amalie Arena rafters before facing the Blue Jackets.

Fans are asked to be in the building by 6:30 p.m. Game time will be 8 p.m.

“Hopefully some of the energy from that ceremony will work to our advantage,” coach Jon Cooper said this morning.

The Lightning snapped a four-game losing streak Thursday night with a 3-2 win against the visiting Sabres. Ben Bishop marked his return to the net after missing nine games because of a lower body injury with a 24-save effort.

Cooper expects to field the same lineup tonight, though Andrei Vasilevskiy will be in net.

The team recalled F Erik Condra from AHL Syracuse.

“For a variety of reasons,” Cooper said. “Whether he’s in the lineup or not, we’re heading out west. We need guys. That’s a long way to go.”

The Lightning begin a six-game, 13-day road trip after tonight’s game that begins in Los Angeles.

F Ryan Callahan will miss his third consecutive game tonight. He missed 15 games with issues stemming from his off-season hip surgery then played three games earlier this month before suffering this latest relapse.  …

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Victor Hedman gets in rare fight

Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman got into a rare fight in Thursday's 4-2 win over the Sabres, tangling with Buffalo's Marcus Foligno at the end of the second period.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman got into a rare fight in Thursday's 4-2 win over the Sabres, tangling with Buffalo's Marcus Foligno at the end of the second period.

You don't see this very often.

Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman got into a rare fight in Thursday's 4-2 win over the Sabres, tangling with Buffalo's Marcus Foligno at the end of the second period. It was just Hedman's fifth career fight, first since Oct. 8, 2013.

"It's been a while," Hedman said with a smile. "But we stand up for one another on this team and I'm no different. Just a lot of emotions, and sometimes you have to get into a little tilt. And I'm not afraid to do that."

Hedman said he was standing up for goalie Ben Bishop, apparently taking issue with what Foligno had done in the crease. And Hedman more than held his own. After taking a few punches from behind, Hedman turned around - and turned the tables - on Foligno, pulling the Sabres' forward's jersey over his head and landing a few right hands. "He got mad," wing Ondrej Palat said.

"You don't really want to see him fighting, but it was fun to see," Bishop said of Hedman. "He did well. There were a lot of emotions in the game, it almost had a little playoff feel with the ways guys were going at it. It's good to see guys step up. He's a big leader on this team. To see him do that makes everyone else step up their game." …

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Marty St. Louis says 'nervousness' for Friday's ceremony

Marty St. Louis reflected on some of his favorite memories, including the 2004 Stanley Cup run Thursday.

JOE SMITH | Times

Marty St. Louis reflected on some of his favorite memories, including the 2004 Stanley Cup run Thursday.

Marty St. Louis opened Thursday's press conference at Amalie Arena with a joke.

"I am not making a comeback," St. Louis said, laughing.

There will likely be many laughs, and maybe some tears, from St. Louis during Friday's ceremony where the Lightning will retire his No. 26. On the eve of the event, when St. Louis will drop the ceremonial puck, he said he hopes to keep his emotions in check.

"I'm definitely nervous," St. Louis said. "I've practiced my speech in front of 3-4 people. Now I get to execute in front of 19,000 people watching. Nobody prepares you for these things, you just do the best you can and enjoy it. That's what I'm reminding myself, just really enjoy it." …

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Vasilevskiy says he learned from 'rough' experience as No. 1

Ben Bishop will be back in net for the Lightning tonight, having missed three weeks with a lower body injury.

And that's welcomed news for Andrei Vasilevskiy, 22, who could use a break after starting nine straight in Bishop's absence.

"I think even the best goalies in the world, they need some days off from games for sure," Vasilevskiy said Thursday. "Because it's tough to handle many games in a row."

Vasilevskiy admits his numbers were "rough" in his first stint as a No. 1, going 3-5 1 with a 3.78 goals against average and an .876 save percentage. But a lot of that had to do with how the team was playing in front of him, so it didn't zap his confidence. And Vasilevskiy believes this experience will benefit him the next time he's in the starting role.

Vasilevskiy thinks his biggest lessons were learning how to take more rest between games - doing treatment instead of extra workouts - and turning the page mentally. …

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Ben Bishop starting against Sabres

The Lightning should get a boost tonight with the return of goalie Ben Bishop, who will start against the Sabres.

Bishop isn't going to turn things around single-handedly. Tampa Bay (19-19-4) is coming off a four-game losing streak, and is now six points out of the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference. Buffalo is just one point behind the Lightning. But Bishop is 9-0-1 with a 1.57 goals against average in 10 career starts against the Sabres, so that helps.

Bishop got a chance to see the games from a different perspective while sitting out three weeks with a lower body injury.

"It's about finding consistency night in, night out," Bishop said. "Just find a way to get it done. This time of year, doesn't matter how you get a win - pretty, ugly, doesn't matter. Got to find a way to get points."

The Lightning is getting healthier. Both Brian Boyle (lower body) and Braydon Coburn (upper body) are expected to play tonight, with coach Jon Cooper calling the game-time decisions. …

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