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Lightning find a way even without lengthy break

Tampa Bay wins two of three makeup games, but will the lack of extended time off hurt it in the long run?
Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman (77) celebrates his goal with teammates during the third period of a game aainst the New Jersey Devils Tuesday, in Newark, N.J. The Lightning won 6-3.
Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman (77) celebrates his goal with teammates during the third period of a game aainst the New Jersey Devils Tuesday, in Newark, N.J. The Lightning won 6-3. [ BILL KOSTROUN | AP ]
Published Feb. 16|Updated Feb. 16

The Lightning couldn’t do anything about their revamped February schedule, but coach Jon Cooper would have preferred to have seen his team make up its three postponed games either after the All-Star break or right before the end of the three-week stretch previously designated for the Olympic break.

Games at Colorado and New Jersey were postponed due to COVID issues with the Avalanche and Devils, and a game in Arizona was delayed when the NHL decided to enter the holiday break early when COVID cases and postponements were at their highest.

But the league’s schedulers did the Lightning no favors, putting the three road games in a six-day stretch in the middle of the break, creating smaller eight- and seven-day gaps on the ends.

“To be honest, I don’t like our break,” Cooper said. “I don’t like what’s happened here. I thought that if the league was going to pull out of the Olympics, I thought our guys deserved some full time off. And to have some of these games, whether we could have played them or not, right smack in the middle, it’s kind of tough”

Ultimately, the Lightning earned four of a possible six points following Tuesday’s 6-3 victory over the Devils, winning two of the three games despite two of their most sluggish starts of the season.

They enter Wednesday’s slate of makeup games tied with the Penguins for the most points (70)in the Eastern Conference. Had it been able to pull out a win Thursday at Colorado, Tampa Bay would have the most points in the NHL.

While munching points, the Lightning (32-11-6) also experimented with different line combinations, including a brief experiment pairing two-way center Anthony Cirelli with Ross Colton and Taylor Raddysh to create a lockdown defensive line and Tuesday’s reshuffling of three lines — including putting stars Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov together — that netted immediate results.

That kind of tinkering is valuable as the playoffs approach, but so is extended rest, especially for a team that’s played as many games over the past two years as the Lightning.

“I think we want as many days off as possible,” forward Alex Killorn said. “Short term, it may not be the greatest thing, but when you’re looking long term, in terms of playoffs and stuff, we’ve played a lot of hockey over the past couple of years, so we’ll take as many days as we can.”

Dating back to their playoff run two summers ago in the Canadian bubbles, no team has played more games than the Lightning.

The coaching staff is tactical in providing players time off with optional practices and skates to ensure they’re fresh. The team had six days off for the All-Star break — though Stamkos, Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy participated in All-Star Game festivities — and will go five days after Tuesday’s win in New Jersey before resuming practice.

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“I feel for the guys a little bit,” Cooper said, “because, you know, a break is — give the guys 10 days, 12 days off, not five here and six here, whatever it is.”

When play resumes for all teams in the middle of next week, they will be in different rhythms. The Lightning will return to the ice Monday for two days of practice before resuming play Wednesday, when they will host an Oilers team that will have played eight games during the “break” over a 15-day stretch.

“It’s tough,” Lightning center Pierre-Edouard Bellemare said. “It doesn’t matter how much you do off the ice. When you come back on the ice, the ice is the ice. So I think the readiness of that game is going to be mostly mental, because physically you know that you’ve had a break.

“At the end of the day, I’ll take that break over practicing every day or keep playing games, because in the long run this will be good for everybody’s body.”

Note: The Lightning reassigned defenseman Darren Raddysh to AHL Syracuse on Wednesday. Raddysh was recalled Monday but was a healthy scratch for Tuesday’s game as top right-shot defenseman Erik Cernak returned from a lower-body injury that sidelined him for nine games.

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