TAMPA — As if things weren't bad enough for the Lightning, one of its first images of the new year was goaltender Ben Bishop leaving practice Friday just 10 minutes in and not returning.
It got to the point that team director of public relations Brian Breseman was called out of the stands to suit up and fill in as goalie.
Bishop has been arguably the team's MVP this season, so it was encouraging for the Lightning that coach Jon Cooper said he left practice as a "precaution" and could be available tonight against the Wild at Amalie Arena.
"I don't think it's anything serious," Cooper said.
Andrei Vasilevskiy, who had been in AHL Syracuse since before Christmas, was recalled Friday, swapping places with Kristers Gudlevskis, and might start tonight to give Bishop a few more days of rest.
The Lightning desperately needs a win against Minnesota, especially after having lost three of the first five games (2-2-1) on this critical six-game homestand.
"We're not happy at all," defenseman Victor Hedman said. "Like (Steven Stamkos) said, we need to be a little more (ticked) off. We've lost eight games at home, and we lost eight games at home all of last year. We've got to start making this a hostile environment."
That starts, well, with a better start. The Lightning was outworked in the first period in each of its past two games, and starting slowly has been a recurring issue. Tampa Bay has held a lead after the first period just eight times in 38 games, forcing it to chase the game. The Lightning is 4-12-4 when its opponent scores first, 14-4-0 when it does.
"It's almost like we're that team that waits to get punched first, and then we're like, 'Oh, yeah, now we're up and counterpunching,' " Cooper said. "We got outpointed so early that we lose the fight because we couldn't come back enough. Our starts have to be way better."
Cooper believes the Lightning displayed urgency when it was dealing with all its injuries, playing without five regulars at one point. But there has been an almost unconscious exhale with the team getting healthy. Ondrej Palat (left ankle) rejoined his Triplets linemates Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov at Friday's practice and could be back tonight, which would be a huge boost. Palat has missed the past eight games.
"You can't expect when guys get back (that) other teams are going to lay (down), say 'Oh, well, Tampa is getting healthy again,' " Cooper said.
It'll take time before Palat, Johnson, Cedric Paquette and Jonathan Drouin, each of whom has been sidelined for prolonged periods, to find their strides. But the Lightning knows it needs to have more consistency in its game. Momentary lapses continue to cost it.
"We're making one mistake and it's ending up in our net," Cooper said.
Despite Tampa Bay's uneven play, it's still within striking distance of a playoff spot. Nobody in the Atlantic Division has pulled away; the Lightning is four points out of third place, an automatic playoff spot. First-place Montreal is seven points up, but Tampa Bay has played two fewer games.
The Lightning is just three points behind the Red Wings and Devils for one of the two wild card spots in the Eastern Conference.
"Our division is really tight," defenseman Anton Stralman said. "It's anybody's game right now. It's a shame we don't take advantage of it right now.
"We have to realize where we are and how close we are. It's not the time to just sit back and wait and see what happens. Take charge and climb those standings. We have the chances."
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.