Thursday, December 14, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Extended playoff break helps Lightning get healthy

TAMPA — Center Tyler Johnson was zipping around the ice during Sunday's loose and loud Lightning practice at Amalie Arena.

It was a far cry from how Johnson felt in Thursday's series-clinching Game 5 against the Red Wings, when an illness forced him to miss a good portion of the first period. It was difficult for Johnson to even sit on the bench without vomiting.

"I didn't know anything was wrong, and then all of a sudden, the trash can got a little heavier and my body got a little lighter," Johnson said.

He wasn't the only one. Coach Jon Cooper said between two and five players were dealing with a flu bug, which made the 1-0 win so important.

"Desperately needed for our squad," Johnson said.

After taking Friday and Saturday off, the Lightning returned Sunday well-rested and healthier, Cooper saying the illness was gone from the dressing room. With its second-round series against the Islanders not starting until Wednesday or Thursday at Amalie Arena, Tampa Bay will take today off as well.

The Islanders set the matchup with a 2-1 double-overtime win over the Panthers in Game 6 of their series Sunday.

Though the Lightning won't have Anton Stralman (fractured left leg) for the beginning of the series — the top defenseman has yet to resume skating — Cooper said he hopes Stralman will make an appearance during the series. Cooper was less optimistic about wing J.T. Brown (upper body), saying if he returns, it won't be early.

For now, it's about finding the balance between resting and staying sharp, managing the week between games. Goalie Ben Bishop pointed out that his last weekend off was in the summer. Cooper said it's like a "little All-Star break."

But for a Lightning team that played 26 of 28 possible games in last year's playoffs, it's a welcome mental and physical break.

"We're definitely not complaining about it," wing Alex Killorn said. "We'd rather (have it) this way than the other way. I just think you have to make sure you stay on top of your game, because it's so easy to, once you start the new series, be a little flat because (the other team's) season just keeps going on. Seven days off is a lot of time."

Besides getting healthier, Cooper said his team will have to play a whole lot better in the second round if it wants to advance. The first two games of the Red Wings series, both wins, were good; Bishop said he thought they were two of the Lightning's best games all season. But after the Lightning got outplayed in a flat Game 3 loss and bounced back to win Game 4, Bishop had to steal Game 5.

"We need to raise our level of play," said veteran center Valtteri Filppula, the only Tampa Bay player with a Stanley Cup. "That's kind of how it goes in the playoffs; everything gets even tighter and tighter. It's a good sign we're able to win when we're not at your best. Hopefully we can keep improving."

Wing Ryan Callahan, a key cog on a penalty kill unit that went 24-for-25 in the first round, did not skate Sunday, the team calling it a rest day. Forward Mike Blunden was the only other player not to participate, missing practice for personal reasons. Both are expected back for Tuesday's skate, with the Lightning ramping up for its next opponent.

"I've never done it like this, never had this much time between series," Bishop said. "We'll just try to take advantage of the rest, and when it's time to go, I know the team will be ready."

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