TAMPA — Jon Cooper said he finally got to exhale Easter Sunday, with the team's off day giving him a chance to reflect on his whirlwind first week as Lightning coach.
Cooper ate breakfast outside, and started trying to respond to the hundreds of text messages he received since taking over March 25 for fired coach Guy Boucher.
"When I finally walked inside, I was burnt," Cooper said, laughing. "So I had to stay the rest of the day inside because I'm like, 'Oh man, my head hurts.' But it was a good hurt. It was great to be alone for a little while and gather my thoughts, take a breath, and then prepare for what's ahead of us."
Players felt similar relief after an emotional and busy seven days that included Boucher's departure, Cooper's arrival and a come-from-behind 5-4 shootout win over the Devils on Friday in Cooper's NHL debut.
After a spirited Saturday practice and spending the holiday with family, the Lightning (15-18-1) believes it is gathering momentum, taking a two-game winning streak into tonight's game against the last-place Panthers at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
Cooper told his team not to look at the standings, but with the Lightning entering Monday four points out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with 14 games left, he likes the "inner fire" in his players.
"You look at the standings, we're right there," center Steven Stamkos said. "You put a streak together, a lot of the teams have less games left than we do, so we've got to take advantage of the games in hand that we have. With this schedule, you're playing every team in the East, you're going to get points, you're going to climb. That's the mentality we have to have."
Four of the five teams between the Lightning and the eighth-place Rangers have played at least one game more than Tampa Bay. But the climb will be tougher this week with Tampa Bay missing one of its most versatile players, center Nate Thompson, who is suspended for two games because of an illegal hit Friday.
Thompson is reliable in so many areas, from the penalty kill to checking the opponent's top line to faceoffs, and might have played his best game Friday in 22 minutes of ice time. With Thompson out, the Lightning recalled forward Mike Angelidis and reassigned Dana Tyrell to AHL Syracuse.
"I'm not so sure we can sit here and say how we're going to replace Nate," Cooper said. "We're going to sit as a staff and basically put a Band-Aid over what we have and wait the two games he comes back. But what's tough is that it's just another penalty killer, another centerman, and we're just thin there."
The Lightning got some encouraging injury news with goalie Anders Lindback (ankle) skating on his own Monday for the first time. Captain Vinny Lecavalier (foot) and wing Ryan Malone (lower body) also made progress.
And after tonight, Tampa Bay has a chance to make up ground on a three-game trip against teams in front of it.
"Obviously a lot has gone on in the past week, a lot of changes," Thompson said. "Now we can put everything together and hopefully get a nice little streak out of this."
Signings: The Lightning signed Western Michigan defenseman Luke Witkowski, the team's sixth-round pick in 2008, to a two-year deal. He will report to AHL Syracuse. So will forward Tanner Richard, the team's third-round pick in 2012, who signed a three-year, entry-level contract.
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]