Lightning journal: Team wraps up two days of practice after break

Coaches used a ‘mini-camp' approach to prepare for Wednesday night’s return.
Tampa Bay Lightning center Anthony Cirelli (71) return to action tonight in Pittsburgh after a 10-day layoff that included its bye and the all-star break. DIRK SHADD   |   Times
Tampa Bay Lightning center Anthony Cirelli (71) return to action tonight in Pittsburgh after a 10-day layoff that included its bye and the all-star break. DIRK SHADD | Times
Published Jan. 29, 2019|Updated Jan. 29, 2019

BRANDON — Anthony Cirelli had a smile on his face at the beginning of practice Tuesday morning.

The 21-year-old forward and the rest of his teammates played a hockey version of “keep away” to kick things off.

The object of the game was simple, keeping possession of your puck within the two lines denoting the neutral zone while also trying to play your teammates puck out of the zone, eliminating them from the fun and potential bragging rights.

“The coaching staff does a good job of putting those fun drills in there every once in a while,” Cirelli said. “Just the bond of the team and having some fun out there.”

The keep-away game was one of many drills that Lightning players worked through during their “mini training camp” over the last two days at the Ice Sports Forum.

The camp focused on getting the team back into the swing of things after an eight-day break.

After practice on Tuesday, first-year assistant coach Derek Lalonde said the players were “chomping at the bit” to get back at it.

“There was all sorts of excitement out there,” he said, “and it translated into a pretty good practice.”

Tyler Johnson update

Forward Tyler Johnson will be ready to play in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, Lalonde said.

Johnson suffered a lower-body injury during Tampa Bay’s matchup against the Maple Leafs on Jan. 17. He exited the game during the second period and didn’t return as the Lightning finished off the night with a 4-2 loss.

Lalonde said Johnson looks like he is back at 100 percent and is happy to have the forward return in the lineup.

Defensive pairings still uncertain

The Lightning has a problem, but it’s a good problem to have when you’re coming off the break as the best team in the league.

Having seven defensemen and only six slots to fill is definitely one of the better problems the Lightning could ask for heading into this part of the season. The coaches had said they would use the break to assess the rotation and determine if they would make changes, but they’ve yet to draw any conclusions on how to change a rotation they used going into the bye.

“I think it’s a compliment to the seven that I don’t know if we have an answer yet,” Lalonde said on Tuesday. “We’re healthy right now and it’s a luxury.”

The defensemen shuffle has been a consistent once since Anton Stralman returned from injury in November. Stralman, Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh are the only three that have earned starting slots in almost every game. The rest of the blue line has battled it out at random with healthy scratches. Dan Girardi, Braydon Coburn, Erik Cernak and Mikhail Sergachev most often find themselves sitting out.

Family game night

Lightning fans will have a new way to hang out with their favorite players this year.

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In lieu of the annual carnival, the Lightning will be hosting a family game night in downtown Tampa on March 3. The game night has been scheduled at the Tampa Theatre because of scheduling conflicts between the team’s availability and Amalie Arena.

Players are expected to compete in game show-style competitions on stage with fans interacting as the studio audience. Afterward, the fans and players will be brought back together with a block party hosting carnival-style games along with autograph and photo stations.

Contact Mari Faiello at Follow @faiello_mari.