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Lightning need to make the most of upcoming home dates

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On one end of the schedule spectrum, you have teams merely looking to survive a tough stretch, with the Montreal Canadiens ranking high among them.

On the other end, you have teams that really need to thrive. The Tampa Bay Lightning are a prime example of that group.

It’s been a “one step forward, two steps back” kind of season for the Bolts, but their outlook could really change depending upon how they handle the next two weeks or so. (Or, you know, they can keep this pattern going by mixing wins and losses.)

Glance at the very promising opportunities the Lightning could enjoy:

Wednesday (Dec. 28): vs. Canadiens
Thursday (Dec. 29): vs. Maple Leafs
Saturday (Dec. 31): vs. Hurricanes
Jan. 3: vs. Jets
Jan. 5: vs. Predators
Jan. 7: at Flyers
Jan. 8: at Penguins
Jan. 12: vs. Sabres
Jan. 13: vs. Blue Jackets

That’s a five-game homestand and seven of nine games in Tampa Bay, a promising opportunity for a team that has played five more times on the road than at home so far in 2016-17.

Now, there’s no sense claiming that even a strong run would cure all of the Lightning’s ills.

For one thing, their schedule really lands itself to streaks. After all that home cooking, the Lightning face what could be a harrowing six-game road trip. Then they play four games at home, four on the road and another four at home.

With such erratic swings looming after this stretch, we may very well look back at these next couple weeks as a fork in the road for this up-and-down Lightning team.

Andrei Markov opts for KHL after saying goodbye to Canadiens

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Andrei Markov wanted to play his entire career with the Montreal Canadiens. With that option officially off the table, Markov announced that he’s headed for Russia and the KHL.

“I didn’t see myself with any other NHL team,” Markov said during a conference call wrapping up his lengthy stay with the Habs. “I didn’t see myself wearing another jersey.”

(At least not the jersey of another NHL team.)

The 38-year-old also noted that he hasn’t closed the door to a return to Montreal. That makes sense since it seems like it was largely the Canadiens’ decision to part ways with Markov, essentially replacing him with Mark Streit at a heavily discounted rate.

Beyond the comforts of home, Markov was almost certainly motivated to play in the KHL because of the 2018 Winter Olympics.

The veteran blueliner did not mention which KHL team he’ll end up playing for. There were some rumblings that Markov might sign with the Florida Panthers, but that turned out to not be true.

If it’s a one-year deal, a return to the Habs is at least feasible in 2018-19. Considering his age, it sure seems like this is the end of Markov’s lengthy run with the Canadiens, though.

After making NHL debut, Jones re-ups with Isles

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One of the Isles’ feel-good stories from last season wrote a new chapter on Thursday.

Connor Jones, the undrafted 26-year-old that made his NHL debut in April, has signed a one-year, two-way extension, the club announced.

Jones certainly earned his way to the show. He spent four years at Quinnipiac before catching on with the Oilers, spending time with both their AHL and ECHL affiliates before jumping to the Isles organization in 2015.

Though he’s not an offensive producer — just 19 points in 58 games with Bridgeport last season — Jones emerged as a good energy guy that proved an effective penalty killer.

With AHL Bridgeport, he also played alongside his twin brother, Kellen, who was in attendance as Connor made his NHL debut in April.

Connor would go on to play four games for the Isles, averaging just under 12 minutes per night.

Report: Dwight King could be KHL-bound

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Dwight King, the burly forward that won a pair of Stanley Cups in Los Angeles, may be on his way to Russia.

Per News 1130 in Vancouver, King is set to sign in the KHL after failing to land a contract this summer. The 28-year-old finished last season in Montreal after spending the first seven years of his NHL career in Los Angeles.

For a time, King was an effective skater for L.A. He posted a career-high 15 goals and 30 points during the ’13-14 campaign, and followed that up with a 13-goal, 26-point effort the year following. He also had a nice showing during the Kings’ 2014 Cup run, finishing with 11 points in 26 games.

King’s biggest issue is his skating ability. At 6-foot-4, 229 pounds, he was never the fleetest of foot, but had been working on his speed this offseason.

More, from Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman:

King is still looking for work after finishing the season in Montreal. There are a few Western Conference teams poking around.

“I’m just looking for an opportunity at this point. I’m going to be on the ice more this year, doing a little more skills and skating. Any bit of improvement I can find.”

King is going to try a couple new teachers, then decide which route to take. One also works with former teammate (and new Golden Knight) Brayden McNabb. King is quite the physical specimen, but will take a new approach. He regularly played at 230–231 pounds, but is going to go to 225–226. And he believes the Western Conference is better for him.

News 1130 reported that Vancouver had shown “mild interest” in King, who just wrapped a three-year $5.85 million deal with a $1.95M cap hit.

King appeared in 17 games for the Habs after being picked up at the deadline last season, scoring once. He went pointless in six playoff games.

McLellan excited about addition of ‘utility player’ Strome

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To hear Todd McLellan explain it, Ryan Strome could be wearing many hats next season.

That’s what the Oilers head coach said on Wednesday of the former Isles forward, acquired earlier this summer in the Jordan Eberle trade. McLellan expressed excitement over Strome’s ability to play both center and wing.

“He (Strome) is a utility player,” McLellan said, per the Sun. “He has the ability to play center and has in the past. He’s been able to win faceoffs and he’s comfortable on the wing. We have the luxury of moving players around, and as the fans here know, we like to do that.”

That last sentence is clearly a reference to Leon Draisaitl. Draisaitl has flipped back and forth between playing as Edmonton’s No. 2 center and as a winger on the top line alongside Connor McDavid. The talented German’s had success at both, which is why Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli is still unsure if Draisaitl is a center or a winger.

More: Strome pumped at prospect of playing with Draisaitl, McDavid

As for Strome, he certainly gives Edmonton some flexibility — on the ice, and on the books.

With a $2.5 million cap hit (compared to Eberle’s $6M), he’s provided Chiarelli with more cap space to get the Draisaitl contract done. And there’s also the potential for him to be a real bargain. Remember, Strome is only two years removed from a sophomore campaign in which he scored 17 goals and 50 points in 81 contests. His subsequent two years with the Isles were a disappointment, but the talent is still there.

The wildcard in all this is the fact that Strome’s heading into a contract year. He’ll be a restricted free agent next July, so the ’17-18 campaign will go a long way in determining his value… and, potentially, his future in Edmonton.