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Penguins in town, Vasilevskiy in goal

The Lightning face defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh tonight at Amalie Arena, the team that bounced it from the Eastern Conference finals last season in seven games.

The Penguins (19-9-1) have won four straight and are fighting the Rangers for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division.

The Lightning (14-12-2) has lost six of its last seven with the lone victory being a shotout win against the Capitals last Saturday.

Coach Jon Cooper said after this morning’s optional skate that his team needs to generate more offense (just three goals in its last three games). That, Cooper said, begins with playing better defense and creating turnovers.

Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy will make his first start since Dec. 1 when he allowed four goals in less than 21 minutes at St. Louis. He’s allowed nine goals in his last two starts, but looked good Thursday when he stopped nine of 10 shots in relief of Ben Bishop during a 5-1 loss to Vancouver.

 

Vasilevskiy played well against the Penguins last May in the conference finals when subbing for the injured Ben Bishop.

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Seems like a setback for Ryan Callahan

Coach Jon Cooper won't officially say it, but it certainly seems like veteran wing Ryan Callahan has suffered a setback in his lower-body injury.

Callahan, 31, has missed the last five games. He told the Times Wednesday his surgically-repaired hip had been nagging him. But Callahan appeared like he was nearing a return Thursday, having felt encouraged after back-to-back skates Tuesday and Wednesday.

But Callahan didn't participate in Thursday's morning skate, nor was he on the ice Friday at the Ice Sports Forum. It would appear Callahan is doubtful for Saturday's game against the Penguins.

Callahan missed the first month of the season as he recovered from June's hip surgery, returning Oct. 30 and tallying four points in 15 games. It has to be at least concerning that Callahan, in the third year of a six-year, $34.8 million deal, is still bothered by the hip. …

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Lightning Strikes! podcast: Talking with Brian Engblom

Brian Engblom guests on our latest Lightning Strikes! podcast.

Getty Images

Brian Engblom guests on our latest Lightning Strikes! podcast.

Joe Smith speaks with Brian Engblom, former Stanley Cup winning defenseman and Lightning color analyst for Fox Sports Sun, on our latest Lightning Strikes! podcast.

In this episode, we discuss the "turning point," how the Lightning got back on track after a four-game losing streak. Other topics include Ben Bishop's recent play, the need to be "harder" defensively and the development of Slater Koekkoek and Jonathan Drouin.

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Ben Bishop making third straight start

Ben Bishop will start his third straight game tonight against the Canucks.

AP photo

Ben Bishop will start his third straight game tonight against the Canucks.

Lightning goalie Ben Bishop will start a third straight game for the first time this season.

It's well-deserved, considering how Bishop performed in back-to-back games over the weekend, allowing a combined two goals. He was a big reason the Lightning snapped a four-game losing streak, taking three of four points over the weekend.

"We need someone to help turn this around for us, and I truly believe we really made a conscious effort to play in our own end," coach Jon Cooper said. "But ultimately somebody has to make those big saves for you and Bish has made them.

"Hopefully he's kind of finding his groove which we've been used to seeing in the three years he's been here."

Backup Andrei Vasilevskiy's last start came a week ago in St. Louis, when he was pulled early in the second period after allowing four goals. Vasilevskiy said he was "unlucky" in that game, and understands Cooper riding the hot hand in Bishop.

"I think one start a week is enough for a backup to feel ready," Vasilevskiy said. "Bish will get more starts because he's our starter. Nothing I can do. When I get next start, I have to be ready." …

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Lightning get healthy over two-day break

Ryan Callahan is probable for Thursday's game against the Canucks.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Ryan Callahan is probable for Thursday's game against the Canucks.

Two days off did the Lightning a lot of good.

That was easy to see in Wednesday's nearly-90 minute practice at Amalie Arena.

"You could just tell, guys looked fresher, had a little jump in their step," coach Jon Cooper said.

And Tampa Bay is getting back to full strength. Ryan Callahan (lower body), Jason Garrison (lower body) and wing Jonathan Drouin (undisclosed) all practiced Wednesday. Cooper said Callahan and Garrison are probable for Thursday's game against the Canucks, and Drouin could return, too, though he's between probable and questionable.

Callahan said his surgically-repaired hip was nagging him, but he's felt better skating the past two days and was "encouraged" with how it went Wednesday. Garrison, who took a shot off the outside of his knee, looked good in practice, skating alongside usual partner Andrej Sustr.

But more than physically, the two-day break was also mentally refreshing for a Lightning team that had played 14 games in 25 days. You can see Tampa Bay slowly getting its confidence back after snapping a four-game losing streak Saturday. The Lightning has racked up three out of possible four points the past two games, allowing a combined two goals. …

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Lightning reassign Witkowski and Bournival to Syracuse

The Lightning reassigned defenseman Luke Witkowski to AHL Syracuse Tuesday.

CHARLIE KEIJO | Times

The Lightning reassigned defenseman Luke Witkowski to AHL Syracuse Tuesday.

It appears the Lightning is getting healthier.

Tampa Bay reassigned defenseman Luke Witkowski and Michael Bournival to AHL Syracuse Tuesday. That seems like a good sign that wing Jonathan Drouin (undisclosed injury) and defenseman Jason Garrison (lower body) might be available Thursday against the Canucks at Amalie Arena.

The Lightning took Monday and Tuesday off, and will return to practice Wednesday. Drouin missed Sunday's game with his injury. Garrison has been out since taking a shot off the outside of his knee Thursday in St. Louis.

Coach Jon Cooper said Sunday he thought Garrison would "turn the corner" by Thursday. Wing Ryan Callahan (lower body) is eligible to come off injured reserve, but it's uncertain if he'll be available Thursday.

Wing Joel Vermin, who has been impressive since getting called up Wednesday, is still with the team.

 

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Killorn: 'Unanimous' rejection of NHL proposal on Olympics

There's no doubt NHL players want to participate in the 2018 Olympics in South Korea.

"Everyone wants to go to the Olympics," said Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman, who'd likely be on Sweden's roster.

But the players' union wasn't willing to sacrifice three more years of negotiating rights on the next collective bargaining agreement in order to go. The NHL's latest offer of allowing players' participation in the Olympics for pushing the CBA's out clause to 2023 was rejected this week.

"It was pretty unanimous around the league," said wing Alex Killorn, the Lightning's union rep. "For guys to represent their country is a huge thing, and I think the NHL likes to use that as a negotiating tactic. Hopefully we can work out something so both parties can benefit."

This issue will likely be discussed further at next week's NHL Board of Governors meeting in Palm Beach. Commissioner Gary Bettman said he'd like a decision on Olympics participation to be made by January. …

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Jason Garrison injury not long-term

Just when the Lightning got defenseman Anton Stralman back, it lost another top-four defenseman.

Jason Garrison is out tonight after suffering a lower-body injury at the end of the second period Thursday. Garrison took a shot off the outside of his leg, having trouble skating off. Garrison didn't skate this morning, and would appear doubtful for Sunday's game in Carolina. He's considered day-to-day, coach Jon Cooper said.

"He took a shot in a spot where there was no pad," Cooper said. "Those aren't comfortable. But I don't think it'll be too long term."

With Garrison out, defenseman Luke Witkowski is slated to play in the top-four with Braydon Coburn. Slater Koekkoek and Andrej Sustr are the third pair tonight, with Nikita Nesterov scratched. The Lightning has given up 19 goals in its four-game losing streak, and its short-handed blueline will have a tough test against the Capitals tonight.

"Every position is getting tested," Cooper said. "But for us, we're not using that for excuses. We're not worried." …

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Yzerman concerned, but no shakeup coming for Lightning

If you’re a concerned Lightning fan, you’ve got company.

It’s frustrating to players and coaches that Tampa Bay, a preseason Stanley Cup favorite, is playing mediocre hockey as the calendar flips to December. So you can imagine how the struggles are sitting with the Hall of Fame player who built the team.

“I can’t say, if I look at it all together, that I’m really pleased with where we’re at at this point,” general manager Steve Yzerman said Friday. “The intensity, the urgency in our play hasn’t been there.”

The Lightning (13-11-1) has lost a season-high four consecutive games heading into tonight’s game against the Capitals at Amalie Arena. It has collected just two points in the past 10 days, dropping Tampa Bay to the second wild card spot in the Eastern Conference.

But don’t expect significant changes from Yzerman. As much as he is constantly looking to improve his team — and recognizes it has needs — trades are difficult to make in a salary cap world. You need a partner. And Yzerman insisted he won’t make a move just to “shake things up.” …

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Vasilevskiy starts tonight, Namestnikov scratched

In what at the very least is an interesting move, backup Andrei Vasilevskiy will start in net for the Lightning tonight against the Blues.

It's the first time this season Vasilevskiy, 22, will be starting back-to-back games.

This appeared like a game Bishop would start, the two-time Vezina Trophy finalist typically starting two out of every three games this season. Plus this is Bishop's hometown. He's started all three Lightning games in St. Louis since he's been here, albeit is 0-2-1 in those games.

However, the Lightning is going with Vasilevskiy, who has been off to a strong start this season (6-2-1, 1.89 goals against average) in nine starts. Bishop is 7-8-0 with a 3.04 GAA in 15 starts. Coach Jon Cooper said the other day you have to "stay the course" with the No. 1 in Bishop.

But the Lightning (13-10-1), having lost three straight, badly needs a win. With Tampa Bay having not won in St. Louis since 2009, maybe coach Jon Cooper is trying to shake things up. Can't imagine this is sitting well with Bishop. …

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Lightning recalls Vermin, Bournival from Syracuse

The Lightning recalled forwards Joel Vermin and Michael Bournival from AHL Syracuse Wednesday.

With wing Ryan Callahan a late scratch Tuesday with a lower-body injury, and a few other forwards banged-up, Tampa Bay needed some depth up front heading into Thursday's game in St. Louis.

Vermin, a 5-foot-11 win, has six goals in 17 games with the Crunch this season. He is tied for the Syracuse lead for goals, is first for power-play goals and is fifth for points. He has played in six career NHL games, all with Tampa Bay last season, notching one assist.

Vermin was one of the last cuts in camp, after what GM Steve Yzerman dubbed an "outstanding" preseason, so him getting the nod is not a surprise.

Bournival, signed this summer, has five goals and 11 points in 17 games. He's played in 89 career NHL games, all with the Canadiens.

Tanner Richard, off to a hot start in Syracuse, is worthy of a calllup, but my guess is the Lightning is already loaded with centers.

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Latest Lightning podcast with radio voice Dave Mishkin

The Lightning is about to open the season's third month in a battle for the top playoff spots in the Atlantic Division.

Is this where Tampa Bay was expected to be?

As the Lightning reached the quarter-mark of its season, the Times sat down with long-time radio voice Dave Mishkin to discuss the team's most pressing issues, and take your questions! Should Andrei Vasilevskiy be getting more starts? What's with Ben Bishop's inconsistent start? What's been different with Tyler Johnson lately?

We discuss all that and more in the latest podcast. Click below to listen.

 

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Brayden Point gets his shot at center

Lightning rookie Brayden Point has already impressed in his first pro season while playing wing.

And now Point, 20, is finally getting his shot at his natural position, center.

Point was put there in the third period Sunday in Boston, his line with RW Jonathan Drouin and LW Alex Killorn dazzling. And the trio will start tonight's game in Columbus together.

"You try to bring (Point) along slow in pro hockey," coach Jon Cooper said. "But put him in the middle of it and see what he can do in his natural position. That's what we want to see in him so we'll give it a shot."

Point, who has 10 points in his first 23 NHL games, said he feels more comfortable at center, where he can use his speed more. Having a talented wing like Drouin on his side helps; Drouin had a team-high eight shots Sunday.

"Jo's obviously such a skilled player, he just makes whoever he plays with better," Point said. "So I'll try to complement him." …

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Lightning Strikes Podcast: Vasilevskiy's strong start

Tampa Bay Lightning players react following a score in the third period against the Philadelphia Flyers at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016.

CHARLIE KAIJO | Times

Tampa Bay Lightning players react following a score in the third period against the Philadelphia Flyers at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2016.

You knew the Lightning would be tested once it lost captain Steven Stamkos - again - last week.

But Tampa Bay found a way to win four of five games on its last road trip, and five of six overall heading into Friday's game against Columbus. How did the Lightning do it? In this week's podcast, we break down who has stepped up in Stamkos' absence.

We also examine the strong start by backup goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, and what it could mean for the Lightning's future plans with him and starter Ben Bishop. Then, we take your questions on Anton Stralman, J.T. Brown, Thanksgiving and more.

Click below to listen.

 

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How the Lightning spent Thanksgiving

Lightning center Tyler Johnson said he and Ondrej Palat have had a tradition of hosting teammates on Thanksgiving dating back to their days in the AHL.

And Thursday's holiday was no exception, with about 10-12 Tampa Bay teammates heading to Johnson's Tampa home after practice for feasting and football. With so many leftovers, Johnson said they plan to give the rest to the area's homeless.

"So it worked out well," Johnson said. "A good time all-around."

Each player brought a dish, defenseman Jason Garrison saying half were homemade, the others store bought. Wing Alex Killorn earned rave reviews for his sweet potato mash. Garrison brought roasted brussels sprouts, cranberry sauce and pie. Palat's wife, Barbora, made the turkey.

"The turkey was phenomenal," Johnson said.

Johnson and Palat used to host in their apartments back in Syracuse, and in Tampa a couple years ago. Both own homes now, making hosting easier.

"It's a lot of fun," Johnson said. "Whoever doesn't have family here they can come over, spend some time, watch some football."

How do you top that?

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