PITTSBURGH — Much has been made about how much the Lightning misses injured top scorer C Steven Stamkos and top-pairing D Anton Stralman, and deservedly so.
But wing J.T. Brown's injury absence, though under the radar, has left a noticeable void. That's what makes it so encouraging for the Lightning to see Brown getting closer to a return.
Brown skated with the fourth line for his second straight full practice Thursday, and though there was no word about whether he would play tonight in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final against the Penguins, it appears he'll be back soon. Brown has been out since suffering an upper-body injury in Game 2 of the first-round series against the Red Wings.
"He's a guy that has been forgotten on the injury department, but I'll tell you, we missed him in the (second-round) Islanders series," coach Jon Cooper said. "We're a quick club, and he just adds to that. But he's got the speed, the grit, the tenacity. And he's one of those guys, because there's players that put the puck in the net or do some different things, he doesn't get much press. But you walk into the locker room and ask the worth of J.T. Brown and how much he's meant to us.
"In our third playoffs together, he's been as important as any player. So the quicker we get him back, the better off we're going to be."
Cooper didn't say if Brown would play tonight, but the other forwards who would play in his place (Mike Blunden, Jonathan Marchessault) skated with the extra players after practice. Brown had a career-high eight goals and 22 points this season, and his plus-16 was tied for third on the team.
" 'Brownie' is one of those guys that he just runs through a wall for anyone," C Tyler Johnson said. "He's moving 100 miles an hour all the time. He's like a little Energizer Bunny; he just keeps guys going."
Stralman (fractured left leg) also participated in his second straight full team practice and took another step in his recovery with some contact in drills. But it looked like he might not be ready for Game 1.
Stamkos (blood clot) skated in his red no-contact jersey.
LAYOFF: The Lightning, realizing it struggled early in Game 1 of the Islanders series after a week layoff, said it has learned from that experience. Tampa Bay fell behind 3-1 to New York in the first period before losing 5-3.
G Ben Bishop, who was pulled in that game after allowing four goals on 13 shots, said the layoff didn't affect him but Tampa Bay — which wrapped up the Islanders series in Game 5 on Sunday — needs to be better.
"We need to be more aware," Bishop said. "Last game (against the Islanders), we didn't come out with the jump that we needed after winning the first series. So hopefully we have learned from that and have a little bit more awareness in that first 20 minutes."
The Lightning had back-to-back hour-long practices Wednesday and Thursday, which should help, LW Alex Killorn said.
NUTS AND BOLTS: Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said he'd announce his goalie starter today, but it'd be surprising to see anyone other than 21-year-old rookie Matt Murray, who has started all but one of Pittsburgh's playoff games and has a 2.05 goals-against average. "He's feeling it," Bishop said.