BRANDON — The Lightning returned to practice Monday morning full of memories from their Stadium Series win in Nashville but ready to turn the page to the challenging schedule that now lies ahead of them.
After Saturday’s 3-2 victory over the Predators in front of nearly 69,000 fans outdoors at Nissan Stadium, the Lightning celebrated into the night in downtown Nashville. The team returned home Sunday for a day off before their schedule becomes busy.
“I got some much needed sleep,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said following Monday’s practice. “I’ll tell you that.”
The Lightning played just six games in the month of February — while other teams had games to make up, Tampa Bay had only three — which served as a nice divider between the first part of the season and an upcoming grind that will include 31 games in 60 days to close the regular season.
Tampa Bay (34-11-6) earned 10 of a possible 12 points in February but had slow starts against Colorado and New Jersey following long stretches between games. Despite the spectacle of the outdoor game, captain Steven Stamkos said it was one of the team’s best 60-minute showings of the season.
“Really happy with that last game,” forward Alex Killorn said. “The other games before that, the schedule has been kind of weird. You’ve got two games, then you’ve got six days off. So we need to get back into a rhythm of playing more often. I think Nashville was a great start, kind of a playoff atmosphere, so we got that win and we just want to keep playing that way.
“Once you have games repeatedly, there’s kind of a momentum that comes with it,” Killorn added. “It’s getting pretty tough, this amount of games (coming up), but it’s nothing we haven’t done before.”
That stretch begins with Tuesday’s home game against the Senators. The Lightning then host back-to back-games against the Penguins and Red Wings Thursday and Friday before leaving on a six-game road trip that will take them through Western Canada.
In fact, following Friday’s home game against Detroit, Tampa Bay will play 10 of their next 11 games on the road over a 22-day stretch.
“The rhythm I like is they go on the road, play two or three games, come home and play two or three games, go back out,” Cooper said. “This is different, because we’re going for six (games). We’re going for two weeks with a bunch of different cities and then we come back just for one and then go back out again for (four).
“That’ll be a demanding trip for us, so we’ll see where we’re at. This will be a test. There’s no question.”
Combine the amount of travel coming up and games almost every other day, and the Lightning won’t have much practice time over the next three week. But this deep into the season, that shouldn’t be a problem. The biggest priority will be staying healthy over the next two months leading into the playoffs.
“We’re 50-plus games in, so we know what we’re doing,” Cooper said. “So now it’s, ‘Let’s just make sure we put our guys in a position to be able to give their best effort.’ We’ll work in our practices when we can, but with so many games and travel — especially March, where there’s just an incredible amount of road games — we have to kind of look back at what we’ve done so far and just keep pressing forward.”
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Note: Defenseman Erik Cernak, who left Saturday’s game after taking a shoulder to his head and entering concussion protocol, was a full participant at Monday’s practice. Cooper said there’s no reason to think Cernak won’t be able to play Tuesday against Ottawa. … Defenseman Zach Bogosian, who hasn’t played since Jan 15, is expected to resume skating this week.
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