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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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Yzerman: Cooper doing 'excellent' job

Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper "is doing an excellent job," GM Steve Yzerman told the Tampa Bay Times Tuesday.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper "is doing an excellent job," GM Steve Yzerman told the Tampa Bay Times Tuesday.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper isn't going anywhere.

While Tampa Bay, a preseason Stanley Cup favorite, is stunningly out of playoff position at the season's midpoint, don't expect any changes to involve the coaching staff.

"I think (Cooper) is doing an excellent job," GM Steve Yzerman told the Tampa Bay Times Tuesday.

It's not like this should be a surprise. Cooper has led the Lightning to three consecutive playoff appearances, including trips to the Stanley Cup Final and Eastern Conference Finals in back-to-back years. There's a reason Yzerman signed him to a multi-year extension just 13 months ago.

But with the Lightning struggling, having lost four straight to fall six points out of the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, it's fair to evaluate everything going on. Fans have started to use hashtag #FireCooper on Twitter.

It's hard to judge Cooper and his staff with the slew of injuries he's had to deal with. Captain Steven Stamkos, the team's top scorer and leader, has missed 25 games. No. 1 goalie Ben Bishop has been out for three weeks. Anton Stralman, Nikita Kucherov, Ryan Callahan, have all been sidelined. At one point, the Lightning was without six of its 12 forwards. …

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Ben Bishop could play Thursday or Friday

Ben Bishop participated in his first full team skate Tuesday, and looked good during two separate 30-minute sessions.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Ben Bishop participated in his first full team skate Tuesday, and looked good during two separate 30-minute sessions.

Lightning goalie Ben Bishop could be returning sooner than expected.

Bishop participated in his first full team skate Tuesday, and looked good during two separate 30-minute sessions.

While the initial goal was for Bishop (lower body) to be back by the California trip early next week, Cooper said Bishop could play either Thursday (vs Buffalo) or Friday ( Columbus).

"I'm really encouraged," Cooper said. "Bish has been fighting his way to get back. There might be a Bishop sighting one of these two games."

Bishop got hurt Dec. 20, and was expected to miss 3-4 weeks. Tuesday marked the three-week mark. Vasilevskiy has started all nine games since, going 4-4-1.

"That would be really big for us, in a sense to take a little bit of a load of (Vasilevskiy) and getting Ben back for the second half is big for us," Cooper said. "He's worked hard to get his way back and hopefully we see him in one of these games." …

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Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov make NHL All-Star team

Nikita Kucherov, left, and Victor Hedman, right, were named All-Stars.

WILL VRAGOVIC, DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Nikita Kucherov, left, and Victor Hedman, right, were named All-Stars.

The Lightning will have two first-time All-Stars this season, with defenseman Victor Hedman and Nikita Kucherov named to the Atlantic Division team Tuesday.

Hedman, 26, one of the league's top defensemen, ranks second on the Lightning in points with 37, a team-high 30 assists. The 6-foot-6 Swede has carried a large load this season, averaging more than 24 minutes per game (two higher than career average).

Kucherov, 23, leads the Lightning in goals (16) and points (39). He was among the league leaders in both categories until a lower body injury sidelined him in December. He's in the first year of a three-year deal signed right before the season.

The All-Star Game will be held Jan. 29 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. …

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Cooper on team's slump: 'Everybody is frustrated'

Jon Cooper says he feels fans' frustration.

DIRK SHADD | Times (2016)

Jon Cooper says he feels fans' frustration.

You knew it was coming.

With the Lightning underachieving, going from preseason Stanley Cup favorites to dangerously out of playoff position, there were going to be frustrated fans asking for changes. Coach Jon Cooper, who has led the team to back-to-back lengthy playoff runs, isn't immune to criticism.

There are already #FireCooper hashtags on Twitter, among others.

Cooper doesn't pay attention to that. But he feels fans' frustration.

"I know it's frustrating for everybody," Cooper told the Tampa Bay Times. "You know why? We've won. The standard has been set high and we want to keep raising that standard. And when you do that, expectations rise. Everybody is frustrated. We're frustrated. We know where we've been and want to get back there.

"There's other hurdles that have jumped in our way to get there. We're just trying to fight our way out of it."

It's hard to completely judge Cooper and his staff considering the slew of injuries (hurdles) Tampa Bay has faced. Captain Steven Stamkos, the team's top scorer and leader, has missed 25 games. The team's No. 1 goalie Ben Bishop has been out three weeks. Nikita Kucherov, Anton Stralman, Ryan Callahan, Brian Boyle have all missed time. On Sunday, against the defending champion Penguins, the Lightning lineup included five players who spent most of this season in Syracuse.  "It's hard to be more consistent when you have an inconsistent lineup," Cooper said. …

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Lightning Strikes! podcast: Where does the Lightning go from here?

Jon Cooper observes a break in play during the first period of a game against Vancouver in December.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Jon Cooper observes a break in play during the first period of a game against Vancouver in December.

A four-game losing streak has pushed the preseason Stanley Cup favorites further out of playoff contention. A coaching change is not the answer, Joe Smith explains, but what is? Plus we take your questions. Full Story