After scoreboard watching, Lightning return to ice for important games

TAMPA — The Lightning will enter Thursday’s home game against the Rangers having not played since Saturday, a break that’s given them valuable practice time after adding two trade-deadline acquisitions.

It’s also allowed the teams competing with them for the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference opportunities to catch up to them.

So the Lightning have spent a lot of time scoreboard watching, something they seldom have had to do this late in the season because they’ve usually had a postseason berth secured.

“There hasn’t been a whole lot else to do,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “It’s usually watching your own team play, but we haven’t played much. To have as few games we’ve played, you’re just watching teams catch up to us now.”

The teams chasing them — the Islanders, Red Wings and Capitals — all entered the week with games in hand, but they haven’t taken advantage. Surging New York had a chance to pass Tampa Bay Monday on points percentage but lost in Vegas.

The Red Wings, who also sat just two points behind the Lightning before Wednesday, lost by four goals Tuesday in Buffalo. The Capitals, who are five points back, went into Wednesday night’s game in Edmonton coming off a three-goal loss in Winnipeg.

By Thursday morning, all three of those teams will either have played the same number of games as the Lightning (65) or just one fewer. So, Tampa Bay coming out of its break still sitting two points ahead in the first-wild card spot represents the best situation possible.

“We’re still right in the thick of it,” Cooper said. “So that was the best-case scenario for us. ... And now, these games are coming and it’s up to us to make sure we stay there.”

To do so, they will have to beat the conference’s two division leaders. After the Metropolitan-leading Rangers, the Lightning travel south to Sunrise to face the Atlantic-leading Panthers, who beat Tampa Bay in both of their meetings earlier this season.

Help on the horizon

The extra time off seems to have helped forward Tanner Jeannot, who is expected to return to the lineup Thursday after missing 23 of the last 24 games with a lower-body injury.

Jeannot has been practicing with the team and participating in all of the drills. Cooper said “it’s trending that way” that Jeannot will play his first game in more than a month. He last played Feb. 13 in Boston. He missed the 12 games before that after first being injured Jan. 6 against the Bruins.

“We’ll see,” Cooper said. ”I hope he is (back). He’s missed a bunch of time for us, and he’s been working hard to get back. So we’ll see (Thursday).”

During Wednesday’s practice, Jeannot skated as the fourth-line left wing alongside center Luke Glendening and right wing Tyler Motte. His return could mean that the team returns to 12 forwards after playing the last several games with an 11-forward, seven-defenseman lineup.

The Lightning also are expected to get back right-shot defenseman Erik Cernak, who missed the third period of Saturday’s win over the Flyers.

Newcomers fitting in nicely on, off ice

Newly acquired forward Anthony Duclair and defenseman Matt Dumba both played well in their Lightning debuts on Saturday, and coaches have noticed how quickly and seamlessly they have fit in off the ice.

“It’s hard at times at the trade deadline for guys to come in and have an impact on the room, the locker room, and both of those guys seem like they’re already contributing to kind of the life of the room and the camaraderie of the room, which is a big thing over the course of the season,” said assistant coach Jeff Halpern. “So I think off one game, they did great. I think more so, I’m encouraged by how well they’re fitting in.”

Duclair and Dumba, close friends who talked for years about playing together, have brought new energy into the Lightning room.

“We’re high-energy guys who love to get the boys going,” Duclair said. “We’re always joking around and having fun. I think Coop mentioned that it’s a little bit more of a quiet room. I think Dumbs told him, ‘We’ve got you. That’s why we’re here, that’s what we do.’ We’ll bring that out, for sure.”

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