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Lightning rested, repaired as Vancouver, Pittsburgh arriving

Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. DIRK SHADD/tbt*
Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Jon Cooper. DIRK SHADD/tbt*
Published Dec. 8, 2016

TAMPA — Sensing his team was mentally and physically drained, coach Jon Cooper gave Lightning players Monday and Tuesday off.

"If I could have given them more off, I would have," he said.

Tampa Bay just finished a grueling stretch of 14 games in 25 days. The break seemed to have worked wonders, judging by the intensity and crispness of Wednesday's 90-minute practice.

"You could see guys had a jump in their step," wing Alex Killorn said.

Three injured players took a big step in their recoveries, with wings Ryan Callahan (lower body), Jonathan Drouin (undisclosed) and defenseman Jason Garrison (lower body) in their first full team skate. Cooper said Callahan and Garrison are probable tonight against the Canucks, with Drouin close, too. Callahan said his surgically repaired hip was nagging him, forcing him to miss four games, but he responded well on back-to-back days on the ice.

"It was encouraging the way I felt," Callahan said.

The Lightning (14-11-2) has been encouraged with how it has played, taking three of four possible points on a weekend back-to-back against the Capitals and Hurricanes. As goalie Ben Bishop put it, it was a "night and day" difference from its four-game losing streak. You can sense the team getting its confidence back.

"When you go through those streaks, it's kind of like you're going into games just waiting for something bad to happen," Killorn said. "I think we've kind of gotten over that. You've got to be the instigator, got to be the aggressor and take over games."

The biggest difference has been defensively, allowing two goals the past two games. That has enabled the Lightning to pick up three points while scoring just one regulation goal.

"I think everybody saw how good we can play when we follow our structure," defenseman Anton Stralman said. "Now we just have to build off that."

The Lightning felt things starting to turn in a 5-4 loss in St. Louis on Dec. 1, then followed it up with arguably one of its most complete games of the season in Saturday's 2-1 shootout win over Washington.

"With the team we have, you kind of just need one performance to where it kind of clicks," Bishop said. "I don't think it was a big coaching clinic. There wasn't one drastic thing. All you need with the group we have is one good performance and say, 'Okay, that's how it's supposed to be done.' "

There are still some concerns. Scoring one goal in six periods (plus two overtimes) isn't going to cut it. A lot of Wednesday's practice was focused on offense, reclaiming "winning hockey habits," Cooper said. The lines were switched, with impressive callup Joel Vermin joining Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson.

Tampa Bay knows it can't let up against Vancouver (11-13-2), especially with the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins in town Saturday. The Lightning has dropped to one point out of the second wild-card spot.

"It's a great opportunity for us to get back on track," Killorn said. "We're starting to figure things out."

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.