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J.T. Brown won't raise fist, but plans to do more in community

J.T. Brown plans to do more in the community to create awareness and understanding for key issues of police brutality and racial inequality.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

J.T. Brown plans to do more in the community to create awareness and understanding for key issues of police brutality and racial inequality.

Lightning wing J.T. Brown will no longer be raising his first as a silent protest during the national anthem.

But Brown, 27, one of about 30 black players in the NHL, plans to do more in the community to create awareness and understanding for key issues of police brutality and racial inequality. Brown made the announcement in a lengthy Twitter statement Wednesday afternoon.

"I understand this issue cannot be resolved overnight, nor can i do it alone" Brown said. "I am done raising my fist during the national anthem. I am now using this support, opportunity and platform to call out everyone who agreed or disagreed with me to help by sharing suggestions, continuing respectful conversations and looking for ways that they too can make a difference in the community." …

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Lightning's Steve Yzerman: Nikita Kucherov 'wants to be great'

Nikita Kucherov joined Steve Yzerman, Mario Lemieux and Keith Tkachuk as the only players in the last 30 years to score a goal in each of his team's first six games.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Nikita Kucherov joined Steve Yzerman, Mario Lemieux and Keith Tkachuk as the only players in the last 30 years to score a goal in each of his team's first six games.

If anyone knows what it is like to be as hot as Nikita Kucherov is right now, it's Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman.

Kucherov, 24, joined Yzerman, Mario Lemieux and Keith Tkachuk as the only players in the last 30 years to score a goal in each of his team's first six games. Kucherov has seven, including two in Monday's 3-2 win over Detroit. Yzerman racked up six in the first six games of the 1988-89 season, when he finished with a career-high 65.

What's that like?

"Honestly, I don't remember much," Yzerman said with a chuckle. "It was a long time ago."

But Yzerman has enjoyed watching Kucherov's record run, which has sparked the Lightning's 5-1 start heading into Tuesday's game in New Jersey.

"He's a really fun, exciting player to watch," Yzerman said. "He's got some special skills. From a team's perspective, he's good in all facets of the game, both ends of the rink. He's equally great as a goal scorer and playmaker. And he's playing hard. He's very motivated, very competitive. He's been a significant factor in every game."

Yzerman isn't surprised, having noticed Kucherov's drive ever since the Russian was selected in the second round of the 2011 NHL Draft. …

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Deception key to Nikita Kucherov's hot start

Nikita Kucherov is the first player in Lightning history to score a goal in each of the first five games.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Nikita Kucherov is the first player in Lightning history to score a goal in each of the first five games.

The slick, sling-shot type wrist shot Nikita Kucherov used for his first goal Monday night may have stunned many at Little Caesar's Arena.

But Kucherov, 24, has practiced it countless times. There were his 5-to-6 day a week individual workouts this summer at Brandon's Ice Sports Forum, starting in late June. Then the 40-goal scorer, never satisfied, would come home and shoot some more, thanks to the synthetic ice sheet he installed in his two-car garage.

"Just something different," Kucherov said.

It's sparked something special. Kucherov has become one of just four players in the last 30 years to score a goal in each of his first six games. The others include Hall of Famers like Steve Yzerman and Mario Lemieux. Not too shabby.

Kucherov has scored in a variety of ways in his record run, seven goals overall. He's incorporated a lost art — the backhand shot — which the Lightning wing had used for two highlight-reel goals last week.

"Not a lot of guys have the confidence to try it," Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness said. "A lot of guys don't have the skill level. But (Kucherov) does." …

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Luke Witkowski living 'lifelong dream' with Red Wings

Luke Witkowski (28) played his first 55 NHL games with the Lightning, until signing a two-year $1.5 million deal with Detroit in the summer.

Getty Images

Luke Witkowski (28) played his first 55 NHL games with the Lightning, until signing a two-year $1.5 million deal with Detroit in the summer.

Defenseman Luke Witkowski couldn't help but take a peek at the Lightning's morning skate Monday at the brand-new Little Caesar's Arena.

Witkowski, 27, had been with the Tampa Bay organization since getting drafted in the sixth round in 2008. He played his first 55 NHL games with the Lightning, until signing a two-year $1.5 million deal with Detroit in the summer.

"It's nice to see some of the guys," Witkowski said. "And now play against them."

Witkowski is playing a familiar role, a 6-foot-2 defenseman who also spends time up front at forward, like he did in Tampa Bay. He provides physicality and toughness, something Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill remembered from their days together at Western Michigan.

For Witkowski, who grew up in Holland, Mich, signing with Detroit was the perfect fit.

"It's a lifelong dream," Witkowski said. "But when it actually happens, it's something special."

It's been a big summer for Witkowski, who married long-time girlfriend Erin in early September near Traverse City. "I fished on my wedding day," he said.

So fitting. …

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Lightning vs. Blues on 25th anniversary night

The Lightning (3-1) finish off this three-game homestand tonight against the Blues (4-1).

G Andrei Vasilevskiy will make his fifth straight start to open the season. His numbers are down ( 3.75 goals against average and a .900 save percentage) but much of that has to do with the barrage of shots he’s faced. His teammates haven’t exactly made life easy for him.

Coach Jon Cooper said Vasy has “probably” been the best player for the Lightning through the first four games.

The only lineup change for tonight would be if C Cedric Paquette returns. He missed Thursday’s win against the Penguins with an undisclosed injury. Cooper said he’s hoping Paquette plays.

C Steven Stamkos, D Victor Hedman and D Slater Koekkoek scored their first goals of the season in Thurrsday’s win. Koakkoak scored twice – the first two of his NHL career.

LW Alex Killorn had a career-high four assists.

 

The Lightning will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the inaugural team. Coach Terry Crisp and many of the former players are on hand for the festivities.

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Vasy in net, Kunitz facing old team tonight vs. Penguins

It is the fourth straight start to open the season for Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.

DIRK SHADD | Times

It is the fourth straight start to open the season for Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.

G Andrei Vasilevskiy will be in goal tonight when the Lightning (2-1-0) play the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins (2-1-1) at Amalie Arena.

It is the fourth straight start to open the season for the Lightning's top goalie.

It will also be a reunion for Lightning LW Chris Kunitz, who signed with the Lightning over the summer after nine years with the Penguins, where he was a member of three Cup-winning teams.

“I don’t really know what to expect other than outside of going out there and playing the game,” Kunitz said after the morning skate. “The longer you play the more friends you have out there that kind of go to different teams, and this time you’re the one who’s leaving.”

Kunitz said he looked to see when his new team would play his old when he signed with the Lightning.

“I’m sure he circled the game,” C Steven Stamkos said.  …

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Chris Kunitz ready for Penguins reunion

Chris Kunitz felt the Lightning gave him the best chance to win another Stanley Cup.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Chris Kunitz felt the Lightning gave him the best chance to win another Stanley Cup.

Veteran wing Chris Kunitz doesn't think there will be any awkwardness tonight when he faces the Penguins for the first time since joining the Lightning this summer.

Kunitz, 38, already got those feelings out of the way in early September when, after evacuating Florida due to Hurricane Irma, he skated with former Penguins teammates in Pittsburgh.

"I felt a little out of place," he said. "That was the awkward stage of being in blue and them all being in Pittsburgh colors."

Kunitz had special memories in his nine years in Pittsburgh, including three Stanley Cups. All three of his children - Zach (8), Payton (6) and Aubrey (3) - were born in the city. So the biggest adjustment Kunitz has dealt with has come off the ice settling into Tampa.

"We fell in love with the city, and met some really nice people," Kunitz said.

Kunitz knew at the end of last season he'd likely have to move on, a message sent during the exit meetings. "They told us to test the market," he said. "There wasn't much back and forth." …

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Lightning Strikes! podcast: Brian Bradley on reunion of first Bolts squad

Brian Bradley celebrates a goal with the Lightning bench during his playing days.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Brian Bradley celebrates a goal with the Lightning bench during his playing days.

In this episode of our Lightning Strikes! podcast, we chat with the Lightning's first All-Star, Brian Bradley, who discusses this weekend's reunion for Tampa Bay's original 1992 team.

We also chat about the current Lightning. How close is Steven Stamkos to returning to form? Where does Nikita Kucherov rank among top players? Should Mikhail Sergachev stick in the NHL?

Plus, Times beat writer Joe Smith answers your question on trade talk, Sergachev and the J.T. Brown protest. Listen below:

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Andrei Vasilevskiy in net again against Capitals

Andrei Vasilevskiy faced a combined 84 shots in back-to-back games Friday and Saturday against the Panthers.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Andrei Vasilevskiy faced a combined 84 shots in back-to-back games Friday and Saturday against the Panthers.

Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy had a busy enough weekend, facing 84 combined shots in back-to-back games Friday and Saturday.

But the 23-year-old Russian will be back in net tonight as Tampa Bay hosts the Capitals and historically-hot Alex Ovechkin, who has seven goals in two games. Coach Jon Cooper said it was the plan all along for Vasilevskiy to play the first three.

It'll require a team effort to slow down Ovechkin, the greatest scorer of this generation.

"Ovechkin is a a shooter - they're going to shoot," Cooper said. "You have to limit where they shoot from, try to make their angles as bad as possible to limit their time and space. Those types of players are going to get their shots. The problem is when they're hot, which is right now, the puck has eyes for them. How much can you stop that? It's tough. I'm pretty sure their last two opponents - Ottawa and Montreal - they were trying to stop him as well."

Though it's not official, it appears the Lightning could go with seven defensemen in the lineup tonight. Veteran wing Ryan Callahan was moved to the fourth line with Cedric Paquette and Chris Kunitz, potentially to match up with Ovechkin. …

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Lightning teammates on J.T. Brown: 'We've got his back'

J.T. Brown received support for his protest from players around the league and, more importantly, in the Lightning dressing room.

Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald/TNS

J.T. Brown received support for his protest from players around the league and, more importantly, in the Lightning dressing room.

Lightning wing J.T. Brown didn't address the media today, deciding to stick to his lengthy Twitter statement from Sunday on his silent protest from Saturday.

But Brown, 27, received support from players around the league and, more importantly, in the Lightning dressing room. Veteran wing Ryan Callahan spoke for the team.

"The big thing is, we've got 25 different guys in here, everyone is going to have a different opinion, come from a different background and upbringing," Callahan said. "Whether we agree or disagree with what (Brown) is doing, as a team we support him. We support (Brown) on and off the ice. Our biggest thing is we've got his back."

Brown said Sunday that he received racist comments and death threats on social media after deciding to raise his right fist during the anthem at Saturday's 5-4 loss to the Panthers in Sunrise. Brown, one of around 30 black players in the NHL, was the first player in the league to do a silent protest, in an attempt to raise awareness for racial inequality and police brutality. …

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Mikhail Sergachev: 'I'm not afraid to make mistakes'

When Mikhail Sergachev tried to carry the puck out from behind his own net early in Friday's second period, he tried to shake Florida's Colton Sceviour with a familiar move.

"In juniors, I'd slow down, he'd slow down and then I'd start skating," Sergachev said. "(Scevior) didn't slow down."

Scevior stripped the puck from Sergachev for a great scoring chance, drawing a hooking penalty from the 19-year-old rookie. "Those are mistakes that 30 year-olds make," coach Jon Cooper said.

But it was a mistake Sergachev learned from, having an otherwise impressive Lightning debut. He racked up a team-high matching four shots in 16 minutes of ice time. The fact Sergachev felt so comfortable is that the Lightning coaches encouraged him to play his game.

"(Cooper) talked to me and said, 'We don't care if you make mistakes, it's just if you work hard or not,'' Sergachev said. "I'm not afraid to make mistakes, because if you are, you make a lot of them. I just try to play my game and if I have a chance to create something, I try to." …

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Jake Dotchin a surprise scratch for Lightning opener

Jake Dotchin, left, was limited to just one exhibition game due to an unspecified team rule violation.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times (2016)

Jake Dotchin, left, was limited to just one exhibition game due to an unspecified team rule violation.

Lightning defenseman Jake Dotchin has been paired with Victor Hedman all week, ever since the final preseason game.

The two were partners for the second half of last season, when Dotchin helped balance out the top-four.

That's what makes Dotchin, 23, a surprise scratch for Friday's opener against the Panthers at Amalie Arena. Dotchin was limited to just one exhibition game due to an unspecified team rule violation.

Coach Jon Cooper would only say that with eight defensemen, someone has to sit. J.T. Brown and Slater Koekkoek are the other expected healthy scratches. But this could also mean, if the Lightning is indeed shopping a defenseman (like Andrej Sustr), it's better to play him. So it'll be interesting to see which scouts are in the stands tonight.

"You have 23 guys, 20 get to play," Cooper said. "You've probably heard this answer - it's monotonous - but not everyone is going to play every single night. When your name is called, you've just got to be ready to help us win and that's it."

With Dotchin out, veteran Dan Girardi - making his Lightning debut - is paired with Hedman. Anton Stralman is still with rookie Mikhail Sergachev, Sustr with Braydon Coburn. …

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Lightning gameday: Panthers again?

Lightning center Vladislav Namestnikov (90) and Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov (16) battle for the puck during a game last month in Sunrise.

AP photo

Lightning center Vladislav Namestnikov (90) and Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov (16) battle for the puck during a game last month in Sunrise.

The Lightning begin its 25th season tonight with a familiar foe. A really familiar foe: The Panthers, who are not only a division rival but a team the Lightning played three times last week and will play again Saturday night in Sunrise.

In high school this would be known as going steady.

Both teams look to rebound from disappointed seasons since much was expected of each last year and neither qualified for the playoffs.

Bob Boughner, the Panthers first-year head coach, comes to Sunrise after two years as an assistant with San Jose. Lightning coach Jon Cooper said to expect the Panthers to incorporate some of the Sharks game in their own since the Sharks reached the postseason twice during Boughner during his two seasons there.

Of more concern to Cooper is the way the Lightning played against the Panthers during the preseason.  …

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New twist on a familiar script for Lightning's Dan Girardi

Dan Girardi signed a two-year contract during the summer to add some grit the Lightning’s defense and penalty kill unit.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Dan Girardi signed a two-year contract during the summer to add some grit the Lightning’s defense and penalty kill unit.

For 11 years D Dan Girardi skated to the same blue line on opening night and saluted the same set of fans while wearing the same sweater.

“Like clockwork,” he said.

Girardi, one of the Lightning’s two offseason free agent signees, will rewrite the familiar script when he is introduced before tonight’s game against the Panthers at Amalie Arena.

After 11 seasons in New York with the Rangers, Girardi will begin the next chapter of his career in Tampa Bay.

“It’s going to be a little different,” he said. “Even during morning skate I’ll probably start feeling it a little bit.”

Girardi signed a two-year contract during the summer to add some grit the Lightning’s defense and penalty kill unit. He joins F Chris Kunitz, the former Penguin who signed a one-year deal, as two veterans expected to add to the leadership on the ice and in the dressing room.

No stranger to season openers, Girardi is eager to get to tonight as the Lightning begin the 25th season in franchise history with the first of 82 games of the regular season.

  …

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Ryan Callahan: 'Best I've felt in a long time'

Ryan Callahan appears to be finally put his nagging hip issues behind him.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Ryan Callahan appears to be finally put his nagging hip issues behind him.

Much has been made of how Lightning captain Steven Stamkos has looked in camp, and the four-time All-Star certainly seems ready for Friday's first regular season game in 11 months.

But what should not be lost is how wing Ryan Callahan, 32, appears like he's finally put his nagging hip issues behind him. Callahan, shut down in January before a second  hip procedure in February, has been encouraged with how his body responded to a full camp and preseason.

"This is the best I've felt in a long time," Callahan said.

That could be good news for the Lightning, with Callahan opening the season on the second line with Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn. Callahan may not score 24 goals like he did in 2014-15, his first with the Lightning. But with three years left on his contract, Callahan is back to playing his physical, gritty game, a pest on the penalty kill and ferocious on the forecheck. Coach Jon Cooper had to take Callahan out of Saturday's exhibition to protect the veteran from himself after blocking two big-time shots. …

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