RALEIGH, N.C. — Lightning assistant Steve Thomas was in hustle mode Saturday afternoon, but he had a special reason.
Thomas left the team in a rush in order to make it to Montreal to see his son, Christian, 20, make his NHL debut Saturday night with the Rangers.
Thomas, who played 20 years in the NHL, jumped in a cab after Tampa Bay's morning skate for a flight connecting in Newark, N.J., and was scheduled to land just before the 7 p.m. faceoff.
"It's a little bit surreal," Thomas said. "We had him on skates since he was 3 years old, and he's always loved the game. He's always watched hockey. He watched me when I was playing and was around NHL dressing rooms. It's always been his dream to be an NHL player. … It's been a long time, a lot of hard work, and he finally got his chance."
Christian, a 5-foot-9 wing, is one of the Rangers' top prospects, their second-round draft pick in 2010. He found out Friday he'd been called up from AHL Connecticut. "He's nervous," Thomas said, smiling. "And I don't know who is more nervous, me or him."
Christian played 12:46, had two shots and was even in a 3-0 loss.
ALMOST THERE: D Keith Aulie (illness) missed his second straight game against the Hurricanes but said he was feeling much better and could return tonight against Pittsburgh. Aulie, on the ice for the morning skate, said he lost 10 pounds since getting sick Wednesday night and is trying to regain the weight and get back in shape. "It's not fun," Aulie said. "I would rather have a bruise or something you know that you can play with."
IN LINE: Coach Guy Boucher believes his team has finally started to carve out an identity — speed — which it has displayed the past few games, including lines that are coming together. Part of that was Boucher's decision to split up the successful duo of RW Marty St. Louis and C Steven Stamkos. Boucher said it wasn't a knock against them, rather a way to "spread the wealth," with each leading a line. "We're a lot more difficult for teams to match," he said.
NO WORRIES: St. Louis said he's still not playing up to his standards. But Boucher indicated that the 37-year-old former league MVP is just being too hard on himself and it's "okay for him not to always be perfect."
"That's Marty," Boucher said. "He doesn't like one game or one period and all of a sudden he doesn't feel he's at his best. But I thought he's done some terrific things, and I'm not worried about him."
NET GAINS: Carolina G Dan Ellis faced the Lightning for the first time since Tampa Bay traded him to Anaheim two years ago today. "A long time ago," he said, smiling. Ellis was shipped after the Lightning acquired Dwayne Roloson en route to their 2011 run to the Eastern Conference final. Ellis, 32, missed most of last season due to a sports hernia surgery and "thought I might be done." But after a stint with AHL Charlotte, he landed with Carolina as backup to Cam Ward, and entered Saturday with a 1.74 goals-against average.
"I enjoyed my time (in Tampa)," Ellis said. "But it just wasn't meant to be, and I got to enjoy the beach for a couple years."