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Lightning return to the ice in small groups Tuesday

Phase 2 of the NHL’s return-to-play plan starts with optional skating. We’re still a long way from games resuming.

TAMPA — Conditioning is the worst. No one enjoys skating laps, sprints and repetitive drills. Yet, after three months of uncertainty, NHL players are excited to do exactly that this week.

Ninety days have passed since the Lightning last stepped on the ice. They’ll take whatever they can get, with optional small group workouts set to start on Tuesday.

“For me, it was more I was happy to see a date thrown out and a tangible goal to work for,” forward Blake Coleman said. “Having access to the rink and the ice, being around your teammates again is a big deal.”

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The NHL still doesn’t have a date for training camp or the return to games, but it opened up for small groups on Monday. The Lightning took care of the necessary medical testing and will hit the ice on Tuesday.

The team hopes to use their facilities at both Amalie Arena and the TGH Ice Plex in Brandon. The league set strict protocols about having only six players in the building at a time and sanitizing between groups.

Each group probably needs a four-to six-hour window to skate, work out and get medical treatment and then for staff to clean before the next one. Having three groups could require a 12-to-18-hour stretch.

Having groups work simultaneously would make that go much smoother.

The groups cannot change, but players can join in. If players arrive during the week, they’ll go through the same medical testing and can join a group or create a new one.

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Most of the Lightning players stayed in the area, but others returned to their offseason homes. Coleman, for example, remained in Tampa for five weeks and then drove home to Texas. Defensemen Ryan McDonagh returned to Minnesota and Victor Hedman to Sweden.

These aren’t practices; they’re conditioning sessions. So, players have the option to skate at facilities closer to wherever they’re located. Coleman could work out with the Stars and McDonagh with the Wild, for example. Coleman plans to make the drive back to skate in Tampa sometime this week.

“I want to be comfortable in the environment, be around my teammates and keep building that rapport with them,” he said.

Coleman spent just under a month with the Lightning, playing nine games before the season was put on pause. He’s kept up with teammates virtually — “technology’s a beautiful thing” — but it’s not the same.

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This is the longest Coleman can remember going without skating, a pretty unanimous stance among players. They typically take about a month off after the season ends and then get back on the ice for off-season training.

Unlike most sports — you can find places to run, whether it’s on turf, track or flooring — hockey players can’t skate without ice. They’ve done all that they can but cannot mimic the muscle use.

“The first week or two is just getting out there and not trying to go too hard too fast," Coleman said. "With all this time off, you don’t want to over-exert yourself too early. You don’t want to bring on any chance of injuries or wearing your body out too quick.”

The standard preseason fitness tests that go with physicals before players get on the ice are not permitted. Medical, equipment and conditioning staff are allowed, but no coaches (including team-employed consultants like skating coach Barb Underhill).

Players don’t want to be evaluated until they’ve had a chance to get back into skating shape. It’s the first step in what is still a long process to return to play.

The NHL probably won’t host games until August. Once the players are back in shape, teams need time to get back together. The league and players association have not formally agreed the season will return and are still negotiating how it will work.

But there’s progress: For the first time in three months, there are Lightning players on the ice.

“This is the most I’ve ever missed skating,” Coleman said. “I’m itching to get back. I’m sure a lot of guys are. I know when you have that extra motivation to come back, there’s a lot more energy in the room.”