TAMPA – The Lightning is scheduled to take the ice late Wednesday morning at Amalie Arena to do something it hasn't done since, well, last year.
You have to go back to Dec. 27, the day the Lightning returned from the Christmas break to find a time when coach Jon Cooper held an honest to goodness, traditional off-day practice.
He disputes this, of course.
"Anytime you go on the ice it's a practice," Cooper said after the morning skate on Jan. 11, the Lightning's last game before the five-day bye week that ends today.
The guys ran through some drills, he explained.
The goalies stopped some puck, he noted.
"We're a better team now than we were 45 minutes ago," he said.
He was kidding. Sort of.
Those who regularly attend Lightning practices marvel at how well Cooper mixes drills. He often turns them into competitions to keep players engaged in an effort to ward off the Groundhog's Day effect of game day/practice day/game day/practice day than can grow old over an 82-game season stretched over six months.
"Rest is something I think at this time of the year that matters," Cooper said. "All of a sudden the small bruises turn into a bigger bruise. The one day of soreness turns into three days of soreness. Any way we can alleviate that, if it's in my power to do it I'll try."
Cooper cancelled four off day practices during the stretch where his team played seven games in 12 days, using the game-day morning skates as "practice."
"Sometimes it's better to look at what's ahead than trying to make sure you get that practice in," left wing Chris Kunitz said. "We have an extended morning skate. It's more than just one or two drills just to get warm. We're trying to accomplish something every time we go on the ice. Just cause we don't have practices it doesn't mean we're not trying to work on things in the morning."
The travel played a role in Cooper's altered schedule. The Lightning had three practice days scheduled on the recent five-game, eight-day trip.
The scheduled called for a game, a late-night charter to the next city, a practice the following morning, a game the next night, a late-night charter to the next city, an off day practice, a game the next night ….
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
The last scheduled Lightning practice fell between its last two home games. The schedule called for an NHL Security Meeting followed by a noon practice at the arena. The security meeting ended with Cooper walking into the room and telling his players that had the rest of the day off.
There was much rejoicing.
"What probably goes a little more unnoticed is the mental wear," Cooper said, "so keep them away from the rink, whether guys are with their families and kids, I think that' a little bit more soothing than coming to the day job again and going through the grind. We've been having a little bit of success this year with it. I haven't heard the guys complain about it yet."
It's not as if the team's play has suffered with the decrease in ice time. The Lightning will still have the best record and the most points in the NHL Thursday when it meets visiting Vegas.
"If we were at the bottom of the league I'm sure it would be different," defenseman Anton Stralman said. "We'd have a lot of things to work on. It's not like we don't. We're still a fairly confident group. We know how we play. It shouldn't be an issue."
Beginning Saturday the Lightning plays four road games in six nights leading into the All-Star Break, so it's quite possible the truly "off" off-days will continue. Why mess with what's working, right?
"This month we're on the road quite a bit, so I think it's more that than superstition," Kunitz said. "But maybe if we keep playing (like we have) than hopefully we don't have to practice as much."
As expected, the Lightning on Tuesday recalled G Louis Domingue from AHL Syracuse. Domingue was re-assigned before the Lightning's bye week to get some work since he has played one game for the Lightning since replacing the injured Peter Budaj. He played twice for the Crunch, posting back-to-back shutouts.