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Victor Hedman joins team skate; Brett Connolly back in lineup

Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman on the ice during an October game against the Ottawa Senators at Amalie Arena.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman on the ice during an October game against the Ottawa Senators at Amalie Arena.

Lightning defensemana Victor Hedman took the next step in his recovery from a fractured finger on Thursday, participating in the team's morning skate for the first time.

Hedman, out since Oct. 18, wore a red non-contact jersey and and still used a splint, but took a couple slap shots.

"It makes you nervous as a coach, because I saw him wind up with one and I looked right at our trainers right away and said, 'Is that allowed?" coach Jon Cooper said.

Hedman got the clearance to shoot Wednesday, and said while he's feeling better, he's still a week and a half to two weeks away from returning. Saturday marks the five-week mark since the injury, and Tampa Bay is 10-4-1 without him.

"He's a top-10, top-5 defenseman in this league," Cooper said. "If you pull the top defenseman from any team in this league, everybody would have issues. We've weathered the storm without him but we can't go much longer." …

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Cedric Paquette considered day to day

The Lightning got some encouraging news on the injury front Wednesday as center Cedric Paquette is considered just day-to-day with a lower body injury.

Paquette, 21, suffered the injury blocking a shot early in the first period Tuesday night against the Islanders, and didn't return.

Paquette had been playing so well, scoring five goals in his previous six games while becoming one of the team's most reliable penalty killers. It had been hard for coach Jon Cooper to take him out of the lineup.

Cooper will have some difficult decisions before Thursday's game with the Maple Leafs in Toronto, as right wing Brett Conolly (lower body) said he's ready to return. Connolly has been out since Oct. 24.

With Connolly back, Tampa Bay would have to scratch two forwards. Paquette, Jonathan Drouin, J.T. Brown and, most recently, Brenden Morrow have taken turns sitting out. As Cooper said,, nobody has deserved to get scratched, but he may have to go through a "rotation."

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Evgeni Nabokov to start against Islanders, Brett Connolly close

When veteran goalie Evgeni Nabokov signed with the Lightning this offseason, he told coach Jon Cooper, "I don't want you to feel obligated to play me against my former teams."

"I said, 'Well, I hope not, then we wouldn't be able to play you all year," Cooper joked.

The two shared a good laugh over that. Nabokov, 39, isn't that well-traveled, on just his third team in his 14 NHL seasons. But it definitely means something to him to get to start tonight against the Islanders at Nassau Coliseum, where he played the past three seasons.

"The old guard is coming in to protect his turf, to get it back," Cooper said. "I know it's a big night for him. I know he had a twinkle in his eye when he looked at the schedule on this one, so we knew all along he'd be playing this one, so I'm really excited for him. Know the guys will play hard for him."

The Lightning (13-4-2) rallied around its former Rangers - Ryan Callahan, Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman - in Monday's 5-1 win over the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, and hope to do the same for Nabokov, who is making just his fifth start of the season. …

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Marty St. Louis says it'll be 'weird' to face Lightning tonight

"It was very sudden," Martin St. Louis said of the trade that sent him from Tampa Bay to the New York Rangers. "I think sudden usually brings a little more pain to everybody involved, and I understand some of the fans point of view. I respect it, but for me and my family it was time to move on."

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"It was very sudden," Martin St. Louis said of the trade that sent him from Tampa Bay to the New York Rangers. "I think sudden usually brings a little more pain to everybody involved, and I understand some of the fans point of view. I respect it, but for me and my family it was time to move on."

There's no secret one of the main storylines for tonight's game, with the Madison Square Garden marquee having a photo of Marty St. Louis with the title, "Talk of the Town."

Tonight marks the first time St. Louis, the former Lightning captain, will face Tampa Bay since he forced a trade to New York last March.

"I think the first time you play against an old team it will be a little weird, but once you get past the first shift you just play the game," St. Louis said. "I'm not too worried about it. There are definitely some great friends on the other side, but there's been a lot of changes the past couple of years so there are a lot of guys I don't know. I'm just going to go out there and try to play my game. I know that I might have some butterflies early on, but when you go out and play the butterflies will go away."

What'll be most unique for St. Louis is battling with close friend and long-time former linemate Steven Stamkos, who took over for him as Tampa Bay captain.

"I just hope I don't pass him the puck," St. Louis quipped.

Stamkos laughed: "I hope he does; it's been a while since I got a pass from him." …

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Brenden Morrow proud friend Mike Modano going into Hall of Fame

When Mike Modano gets inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday, he will have one extra-proud friend in the Lightning locker room.

Veteran wing Brenden Morrow, 35, played with Modano, 44, for nine seasons with the Stars, ultimately replacing the icon as the team’s captain in 2006.

“He really sold hockey in Texas,” Morrow said. “He was someone you tried not to stare at too much during the game because he had the jersey flowing, just the speed and the grace out there. It always seemed easy to him and the rest of us slugs trying to grind it out.

“He made it look too easy at times. The more I got to know him and training with him in the summer, you see how hard he works. He’s certainly deserving of the Hall, for sure.”

Modano, with 561 career goals and 1,374 points, is arguably the greatest American player. Morrow, drafted by the Stars in the first round in 1997, learned from Modano as he grew into the league. And after Morrow signed a six-year contract extension in 2006, Dallas decided to make him the captain, asking Modano to step down and be an alternate. It could have been a messy situation, but Morrow said Modano handled it in a classy way. …

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Jonathan Drouin a healthy scratch Saturday vs Islanders

Being a rookie in the NHL can be a roller-coaster.

Just ask Lightning left wing Jonathan Drouin.

On Thursday, Drouin, 19, started the game on the top line with C Steven Stamkos. But on Saturday, Drouin watched from above as a healthy scratch.

Center Cedric Paquette, who was a healthy scratch Thursday, took Drouin’s spot in the lineup against the Islanders.

With the Lightning forward group so deep, and getting healthier, coach Jon Cooper has said it’s made for some tough decisions on who should sit when “nobody on our team has deserved to come out.”

Drouin, the game’s top prospect, has one goal and seven assists in his first 12 games since making the jump from junior. Cooper has liked his progress, especially away from the puck. Drouin, who has been on the third line for most of the past few weeks, has said he understands the process, knowing he has a lot to learn before his minutes, and role, increase. …

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Ondrej Palat says he can play tonight; Bishop starting in goal

Wing Ondrej Palat took part in Saturday's optional morning skate, saying while he got "banged-up" Thursday against San Jose, he expects to play tonight against the Islanders at Amalie Arena.

"I'm ready to go," he said.

Associate coach Rick Bowness said Palat will be a "game-time decision." But goalie Ben Bishop will start in net for Tampa Bay.

The Islanders (11-5-0) come in red-hot, winners of five straight.

"They've won four in a row now on the road, their depth, they're balanced, they've got good goaltending, this is a very solid hockey club," Bowness said. "And they're strong in all areas, good speciality teams, good depth, good speed. Their size, they're gritty, we're going to see a lot like we did against San Jose."

Aside from Palat, Vladislav Namestnikov, Jonathan Drouin, Cedric Paquette, Brian Boyle were among the 13 Lightning players that skated this morning. Paquette, who has four goals in four games in his latest call-up, was scratched Thursday, and knows he may get sent back to AHL Syracuse soon.

"It's disappointing, but I understand the process, it's part of hockey," Paquette said. "If I go down, I'll try to improve myself as a player." …

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Ondrej Palat a game-time decision, Brett Connolly getting closer

BRANDON – A couple quick notes from today’s Lightning practice at the Ice Sports Forum.

LW Ondrej Palat (lower body) will be a game-time decision for tomorrow’s game against the Islanders, coach Jon Cooper said. Palat briefly left Thursday night’s game, and he didn’t practice today.

“He got banged up a little bit in the game – nothing too serious…” Cooper said. “Hopefully he’s ready for tomorrow. We’ll see.”

RW Brett Connolly (lower body) skated with the team for a second day in a row. Cooper said Connolly won’t be able to play Saturday but is nearing his return.

“We’re hoping to have him back next week,” Cooper said. “He’s getting close. I would be surprised if he doesn’t play on the road trip.”

After opening Thursday night’s game on the ice with Steven Stamkos, Jonathan Drouin was back on a lower line. Friday’s lines: Callahan/Stamkos/Filppula; Johnson/Paquette/Kucherov; Boyle/Brown/Morrow; Namestnikov/Drouin/Killorn.

The Lightning practiced for about 90 minutes, with the first part focusing on power play.

 

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With Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn "probable," who is the odd-man out?

The Lightning is getting healthy, with coach Jon Cooper saying Tyler Johnson (upper body) and Alex Killorn (upper body) are both "probable" for tonight's game against the Sharks.

Even RW Brett Connolly (lower body) participated in a team skate for the first time in weeks.

But if Johnson and Killorn play, then who is the odd man out? There's been nothing official, but signs point to touted rookie Jonathan Drouin possibly being the healthy scratch, as he was one of the last players off the ice at today's morning skate; he does typically shoot for a while after practice, however. C Cedric Paquette is also an option, though he has four goals in his past four games.

Cooper said it'll be a tough decision, as "nobody on our team is deserving to come out," and "everyone has done everything we've asked."

The focus with Drouin, 19, who has played in 11 NHL games, is to improve his play without the puck, and Cooper said he's gotten better. …

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Alex Killorn expects to play tonight, Brett Connolly getting closer

TAMPA – The Lightning could be closer to full strength in tonight’s game against the Sharks.

Coach Jon Cooper officially said C Alex Killorn (upper body) was questionable, but Killorn said he expects to play tonight at Amalie Arena.

“I was expecting to play on that road trip,” said Killorn, who has missed the last four games because of injury. “Sometimes you don’t know how an injury is going to develop. Maybe it didn’t heal as quickly as I thought. Now I’m ready to play. I feel good.”

C Tyler Johnson (upper body) is officially listed as day to day. But Cooper said Johnson has progressed from doubtful to questionable to probable” for tonight.

RW Brett Connolly (lower body) has missed eight games and had been considered week to week before skating with the team this morning. He won’t play tonight but said he’s getting closer to a return.

“Right now I think I’m day to day a little bit here,” Connolly said. “That’s better than week to week like I was.” …

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Tyler Johnson considered day-to-day

Tyler Johnson, the Lightning's leader in points (18), left Tuesday's game in the third period after getting crossed checked in the ribs area by Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Tyler Johnson, the Lightning's leader in points (18), left Tuesday's game in the third period after getting crossed checked in the ribs area by Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook.

The Lightning got some encouraging news on the injury front Wednesday, as center Tyler Johnson is considered day-to-day, general manager Steve Yzerman said.

Johnson, the team's leader in points (18), left Tuesday's game in the third period after getting crossed checked in the ribs area by Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook. Johnson, who was reaching for a floating puck when he was hit, went down to the ice in pain and was checked out by head athletic trainer Tommy Mulligan before skating gingerly to the lockeroom.

Johnson underwent further evaluation Tuesday night with what the team calls an upper body injury.

With C Alex Killorn (upper body) close to returning, potentially for Thursday's game against the Sharks, he could replace Johnson in the lineup. That would mean Cedric Paquette could stick around for at least a few more days.

Tampa Bay is off Wednesday and will face San Jose Thursday night at Amalie Arena.

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Brad Richards settles in with Chicago, "maybe someday" return to Tampa

Brad Richards was bought out by the team and ended up signing a one-year deal with the Blackhawks.

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Brad Richards was bought out by the team and ended up signing a one-year deal with the Blackhawks.

It's been a whirlwind few months for former Lightning star center Brad Richards.

Richards, 34, helped lead the Rangers to the Stanley Cup Final, but was bought out by the team and ended up signing a one-year deal with the Blackhawks. His wife, Rechelle Jenkins, gave birth to their first son, Luca, five weeks ago.

"From leaving a team you've been engrained in, go to Stanley Cup final, still have to find a place (in Chicago), a baby, all in two and a half months," Richards said before tonight's game against Tampa Bay. "You put it into perspective, it's probably what would happen to anybody. It's a little bit of a hit and miss, and now it's time to settle in."

Richards, who has two goals and six assists in 15 games, feels like he's been playing better recently, and believes he has several more years of hockey in him. He wasn't surprised to get bought out in New York, and happy he could be picky in free agency. Richards said Tampa Bay was a consideration this summer, but just wasn't a fit, though it seems like he'd love to return at some point. …

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Lightning, Blackhawks see tonight's game as a measuring stick

Before this season, The Hockey News predicted the Lightning and Blackhawks would meet in the Stanley Cup Final.

And as the two teams face each other tonight at United Center for the first time this season, both sides are viewing this showdown as a "measuring stick" for where they are.

The Blackhawks (8-6-1) may have struggled out of the gate, but have won the Stanley Cup twice in the past five years (2010, 2013) and are still loaded.

"To me, they're the benchmark," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "There are a couple teams who I believe are elite and they're one of them."

But the Lightning (11-3-1) are a young team on the rise, entering tonight's game as arguably the hottest team in the league, having won six straight and tied for a league-most with 23 points.

"They're a team that's playing with a lot of energy, a lot of confidence," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. "I think they feel like they've got a lot to prove with the ability that they have, they're a team that's hungry to show what they're capable of. So we've got to be ready for that." …

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Evgeni Nabokov to start vs Columbus, Alex Killorn not ready

Veteran goaltender Evgeni Nabokov will make his first start in two weeks tonight when the Lightning faces the Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena.

Nabokov, 39, hasn't played since getting pulled in the first period of a 7-2 loss to Minnesota Oct 25, having allowed four goals in eight shots. Ben Bishop started the last four, winning them all.

The plan all along was for the two goalies to split the back-to-back games today and Sunday in Detroit. Nabokov does have great career numbers against Columbus (20-5-3 with a 1.79 goals against average in 29 starts), and Bishop has fared well against the Red Wings. But coach Jon Cooper said a lot of things were factored in, and ultimately, it was Nabokov's turn.

It'll be Nabokov's third start in the team's first 14 games, with him playing pretty well in the first two. …

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Anton Stralman expected to play Saturday, Alex Killorn closer

Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness admitted he held his breath Thursday night, when defenseman Anton Stralman missed the second half of the second period due to an undisclosed injury.

"Yep," Bowness said, smiling. "Already did that once with (Victor) Hedman."

With the Lightning having already lost Hedman, it's top defenseman, to a fractured finger in the middle of a game in Vancouver Oct. 18, forcing him to miss 4-6 weeks, it could ill afford to lose Stralman, who has been sensational.

Fortunately for the Lightning, Stralman returned in the third period Thursday. And while Stralman sat out Friday's practice at Amalie Arena due to body maintenance, he's expected to play Saturday in Columbus against the Blue Jackets.

Meanwhile, C Alex Killorn (upper body) skated in a red no-contact jersey for the second straight practice, saying it was his "best day yet." Killorn traveled with the Lightning Friday, hoping to play in one of the three games on thee trip. But you're likely to see Cedric Paquette, who scored twice Thursday, in the lineup Saturday night. …

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