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Lightning getting defense help coming out of NHL All-Star break

BRANDON — When the Lightning resume play Wednesday in New York, they are expected to have two of their top defensemen back from injury.

Following his team’s first practice out of the All-Star break, head coach Jon Cooper said Monday he expects both Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak to play against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden.

Sergachev hasn’t played since taking a puck off the back of his left skate on Dec. 19, missing the past 17 games. Cernak has missed the last seven, his most recent action Jan. 11 against the Devils.

Sergachev, Cernak and Haydn Fleury, who missed the past 12 games after initially stepping in for Sergachev, were full participants at Monday’s practice. Sergachev reclaimed his role on the team’s second power-play unit, and he and Cernak play important minutes on the penalty kill.

Their absences forced the Lightning to tap into their defense depth. Rookies Emil Lilleberg and Max Crozier, neither of whom were with the organization this time last season, made their NHL debuts — and immediate impressions.

“It shows they’re ready to play in this league, and it goes to show we have really good depth in our organization and in our pipeline,” defenseman Victor Hedman said. “I think those guys have done a tremendous job of stepping in in their absence, and we wouldn’t be in this situation without those guys’ contributions.

“We’re obviously very excited to get guys back, but we know if someone goes down we have a lot of good players that are ready to step in and contribute right away.”

Crozier was optioned back to AHL Syracuse during the break, but the 23-year-old Lilleberg remained on the roster. If Monday’s practice pairings were any indication, he might have solidified a spot in the lineup. Lilleberg skated in the third pairing alongside Nick Perbix, with Calvin de Haan and Fleury forming a projected fourth pairing.

Sergachev, Cernak and Fleury returning would give the Lightning eight healthy defensemen, so they’d likely have to trim that total by one.

“There’s probably going to be some tough decisions to be made,” captain Steven Stamkos said. ”It’s probably a good thing, but guys have played their way into the mix and we’ve needed that. They’ve been a huge part, but you’re never going to replace guys like Cerny and Sergy on the back end with the amount of minutes, the situational awareness they have, the experience.”

Forwards Tanner Jeannot and Austin Watson, who were on injured reserve before the break, also practiced Monday. Cooper said he hopes Jeannot, who has missed the last nine games, can return during the four-game road trip that ends Feb. 13 in Boston, though he won’t be available to start it.

To accommodate, the Lightning recalled forward Mitchell Chaffee from Syracuse. Chaffee played the last two games before the break after Watson was injured.

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