TAMPA — There's no question Lightning players appreciate the NHL mandate of teams being off Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, something that gives them the chance to spend time with their families.
Goalie Dan Ellis, for example, anticipated 10-month old daughter Kayleigh experiencing the holiday for the first time. The same was true for captain Vinny Lecavalier and 7-month-old Victoria.
And considering Tampa Bay's grueling first-half schedule — including a stretch in which it played 15 of 21 games on the road — the break was well-deserved.
But the layoff also comes with challenges. The Lightning travels today to face the Thrashers in a key Southeast Division game having not been allowed to practice for two days.
That's why coach Guy Boucher said a big key will be today's morning skate, getting his team back into "game mode."
"The NHL is basically like the movie Gladiator," Boucher said. "Guys are waiting to get on (the ice), and they get killed out there. Whenever you're not in game mode, the other teams are just all over you. It's that emotional, that passionate state that you got to get to before the game starts.
"And that's hard because guys got a break. And they need it during Christmas. It's about family. It's about sharing. It's about, I wouldn't say soft, but it's about toning it down. Now all of a sudden, how do you go from … toning it down so low and coming back?"
Boucher said what works in the Lightning's favor is it is on the road, like it was Wednesday and Thursday against the Islanders and Rangers, respectively. That helps the players focus on "hockey only" and get an edge.
Boucher said he will try to give the pregame skate a certain flow.
"Usually those games (like tonight), they're all over the place. Your systems go down the drain; the other team's systems, too," Boucher said. "Usually flow, speed and emotion are the most important, and that's what you've got to bring in the morning of that game.
"You don't want to drain (the players), either, because you're playing that night. So it's got to be very short, very intense but very flowy, in a sense — less stops and starts, more to get their legs going, get the adrenaline back at the right place."
Ellis said players won't have shut off their playing mode. He said he typically goes to a gym to work out or watches video over the two days, mixing preparation with family moments that are "irreplaceable."
"You always kind of stay connected," Ellis said.
Plus, as veteran defenseman Brett Clark said, the team "knows what's at stake," especially with several home games coming up.
"We've got a good stretch here; back to a normal schedule. So it's big," Clark said. "We've got to make a statement. We've got something to prove."