BRANDON — After a week spent sloshing through the snow or sipping something cold while lounging on a sandy beach, Lightning players and staff returned to practice Wednesday following a 10-day respite.
With the Olympics taking place in Sochi, Russia, those not representing their country took advantage of the time for a brief vacation, whether that was up north to visit family and friends or heading south to tropical climates. For a team that was banged up with injuries, particularly to some of its top players, the break was needed.
Tampa Bay reconvened at the Ice Sports Forum for a 60-minute practice to gear up for the final 24-game stretch of the season, which begins for the Lightning on Feb. 27 in Nashville.
“For us to get 21⁄2 weeks off (between games), not only for the healthy guys is it invigorating, but for the hurt guys it gives us as an organization time for them to heal,’’ Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “That way, when we do come back against Nashville next week, they’re ready to go, or really close to ready to go.”
Top center Steven Stamkos is included in that group after missing three months with a broken leg. The two-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner passed the 14-week mark since having surgery to insert a titanium rod and continues to skate with the team. His next scheduled X-ray will take place early next week to determine whether or not he will be cleared to return in time for Tampa Bay’s next game.
“It feels good now, and it’s getting better, that’s important,’’ said Stamkos, who took a mini-vacation from training before returning to the ice Tuesday. “I’m definitely very close, but the kind of thing I’m putting into my head is that if I’m not back for that (four-game) road trip (that starts in Nashville), then worst-case scenario is when we get back home (March 6). The best case is I’m ready for Nashville.’’
Beyond Stamkos, the Lightning played their last game before the break without Valtteri Filppula (ankle) and backup goaltender Anders Lindback (ankle) while starting goaltender Ben Bishop (wrist) played through pain, as did center Tyler Johnson (ankle) and defenseman Matt Carle (foot). Bishop and Lindback were on the ice for practice Wednesday, and both anticipate being ready to play when the season resumes.
“I’m ready to go, it felt good today, it’s just about staying healthy and getting rest,’’ Bishop said. “(The wrist) hasn’t been great, but I just want to give the team a chance to win every night, even if I’m not 100 percent.’’
Filppula, who was expected to miss three weeks with a non-displaced fracture suffered on Feb. 6, plans to get on skates by the end of this week with the intent of returning to practice next week and hopes to play in Nashville.
Johnson played the final two games before the break with an injured left foot, and he was still wearing a walking boot after not practicing Wednesday.
The Lightning will practice in Orlando for three days at RDV Ice Den, located at 8701 Maitland Summit Blvd. The team is scheduled to take the ice at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. All practices are open to the public. Times are subject to change.