Ryan McDonagh was happy to finally get in his first full practice with his new Lightning teammates Monday, a week removed from his blockbuster deal from the Rangers.
McDonagh, 28, wore a red non-contact jersey, but participated in most drills as he tried to get acclimated to everyone. It's doubtful McDonagh will play tonight against the Panthers, but he's hopeful he'll return from a hand injury back Thursday against his former team, the Rangers.
McDonagh said it's been a week since doctors saw his hand, so today will be a "big day."
"We're being conservative with it, which is fine," McDonagh said. "Hopefully it's not too much longer. The team has been playing really well and I'm anxious to get in."
The next question is how will McDonagh slot into the blueline?
Asssociate coach Rick Bowness, who runs the defense pairings, says McDonagh will play big minutes, often times against opposing teams top players, easing the pressure off the likes of Victor Hedman, who has played nearly 30 minutes in each of the last four games.
"He's a competitive guy, eats up a lot of minutes," Bowness said of McDonagh. "He can play the right, can play the left, kill penalties, play against top shutdown guys. He was the perfect fit for us."
Bowness said while McDonagh, a left-shot, can play the right side, he will play the left side for the Lightning. "If he absolutely had to play on the right side, he could," Bowness said.
That means you'll likely see Hedman on the left side in the top pairing, followed by McDonagh on the left in the second and either rookie Mikhail Sergachev or Braydon Coburn on the left side in the third. It'd make sense to keep Hedman with long-time partner Anton Stralman, McDonagh could play with his former Rangers partner Dan Girardi.
Coburn can play the right side, and Stralman can play the left, so there's some wiggle room for experimentation. But this likely means oft-scratched Slater Koekkoek, Jake Dotchin are further down the depth chart, and Andrej Sustr – a recent staple in the lineup – may sit more.
Forward Anthony Cirelli got called up Thursday in Dallas on an emergency basis with Nikita Kucherov (upper body) dealing with an injury.
But Cirelli has played in back-to-back games, and doesn't appear to be going back to AHL Syracuse anytime soon. Cirelli played over veteran Cedric Paquette Saturday against the Flyers, and the Lightning was trying him on the penalty kill at Monday's practice.
"(We like) his skating, he's got good hockey sense," Bowness said. "He's got good skills and he's not out of place out there. We're just trying to give him as much experience as we can. We all know in the playoffs, if we get in, if you're fortunate to go on a long run, you need a lot of bodies.
"And so the more players we have here and give them a lot of experience going into the playoffs is going to show long-term benefits and Anthony has done really well for us. No complaints."
Cirelli said his dazzling debut – a goal and assist – was "surreal," and it's been an unforgettable experience so far. But he's getting more comfortable.
"The nerves are always there," Cirelli said. "But each game you get more confident."
Rick Peckham has always been one of the better team announcers in the business, but he has raised his game to a new level this season. @TB_Times @FOXSportsBolts @TomWJones #TBLightning @TBLightning https://t.co/3wtNpBQ70g— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) March 5, 2018
The Lightning has a tough matchup tonight in the red-hot Panthers, who are in a 13-3 stretch, including six straight wins. Florida is one point out of the second wild card (with three games in hand over Columbus).
So this could be a preview of a first-round matchup with the Lightning.
"It's a team we typically play a ton and know them really well," wing Alex Killorn said. "But we haven't played them for a long stretch of time and they're playing some of the best hockey in the league. We know we have quite the task."
G Peter Budaj left Monday to begin a conditioning assignment with Syracuse, which could last up to six days or three games, meaning he'll be back by Sunday… RW Ryan Callahan did not practice Monday due to body maintenance, so he'll be on to watch at today's skate… Lightning players were among the many pumped to see Tiger Woods join the Valspar Championship field in Innisbrook this week. "Super exciting," Killorn said. "I've been here for six years and the Valspar has always had some good players, but to have a name like Tiger.. I've never seen him play live, so I hope he makes the cut so I can go see him Sunday."