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D Jason Garrison peaking with Lightning

Tampa Bay Lightning's Jason Garrison celebrates his goal during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Boston Bruins, Sunday, March 22, 2015, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson) FLMC107
Tampa Bay Lightning's Jason Garrison celebrates his goal during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Boston Bruins, Sunday, March 22, 2015, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Mike Carlson) FLMC107
Published Mar. 25, 2015

TAMPA — Associate coach Rick Bowness knew D Jason Garrison would be a big addition, having coached him in Vancouver.

But after watching Garrison, 30, this season, his first since getting acquired from the Canucks in June, Bowness said the six-year veteran has been better than advertised.

"This is the best I've seen Gary play," Bowness said.

Garrison has four goals and 26 assists and his plus-28 rating coming in was the best among NHL defensemen, including plus-11 his previous 11 games. While Garrison boasts a big left-handed shot, his main contribution has been his calm, steady defense. The 6-foot-3, 222-pound native of White Rock, British Columbia, plays heavy in the corners and is key cog on the penalty kill; his 94 blocked shots rank second on the team.

Garrison said it helps that he understands his role with Tampa Bay.

"Gary is a man out there," coach Jon Cooper said. "He defends really well, he skates. He's really hard to play against. And, usually, nine times out of 10 if he's going into the corner with somebody, he's the guy coming out with it."

Medical matters: C Cedric Paquette (upper body) missed his sixth straight game. Cooper indicated he'll return on the upcoming five-game road trip that starts Saturday in Detroit.

At last: LW Brenden Morrow's first-period goal was just his third of the season, and first since Dec. 4, 2014 against Buffalo.

"In St. Louis last year, (coach Ken Hitchcock) would always say, 'It didn't matter if I scored another goal," Morrow said. "But it always feels good every time."

Hockey haven? The relevance of the Panthers, who are fighting for their playoff lives, and Lightning this late in the season could boost hockey in this state.

"Winning solves a lot of problems, at the gate, on TV, on the radio, in the newspapers and when you are winning you seem to be pushed to the top story,'' Cooper said. "The turnaround of both these franchises, and Florida clearly has turned around their team, it's a lot of fun. I can't imagine if the two of us had to play in a playoff series, that would be the next step of the state of Florida really jumping on board.

"And then if both teams are having success, and young kids are watching at home and want to be hockey players, that's where it all starts as the 'grass roots.' Then more ice rinks are put up and that's how it all builds. And if the two teams are winning, that would be a big key into making that happen.''

Panthers coach Gerard Gallant, a former Lightning forward, recalled when the Panthers made a run to the Stanley Cup final in 1996 and the arena was packed.

"That's what we're trying to get to," Gallant said.

Ice chips: G Andrei Vasilevskiy started and D Nikita Nesterov was scratched. … LW Ondrej Palat extended his points streak to three games with his third-period assist. The Lightning ranks first in the NHL with 30 home wins. … Former Lightning captain Vinny Lecavalier put his Davis Islands estate up for sale Monday for $4.5 million (see page 4B for details).

Contact Joe Smith at joesmith@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.