DETROIT — It was a strange, scary scene Sunday night.
Lightning defenseman Dan Girardi, one of the league’s most fearless shot blockers, lay face-first on the ice at Little Caesar’s Arena early in the second period. The building was silent, having just witnessed Girardi take a rocket slap shot from the Red Wings’ Martin Frk off the back of his neck. Girardi immediately tossed his stick and gloves, crumpling to the ice, trainers from both teams coming to his aid. Teammates Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman knelt by his side before helping him skate off into the room.
"One of the scariest things I’ve ever seen in hockey," coach Jon Cooper said.
That’s why it was so encouraging — even more than the 5-2 victory over the Wings — that Girardi was okay, greeting teammates between periods with his usual jokes.
"He was himself," Stamkos said. "He was making, jokes, laughing.
"The usual ‘G’,?’’ said wing Ryan Callahan, one of Girardi’s closest friends.
Girardi didn’t return to the game, but returned to Tampa with the team to undergo more tests. He may have played less than half the game, but he made enough of an impact to get named the third star. Girardi scored the first goal, on a nifty re-direction, midway through the first. He assisted on the second one, tipping a shot to the back post where Tyler Johnson put it in. Then, of course, were Girardi’s two blocked shots, a key cog of a penalty kill that thwarted two Detroit 5-on-3.
"The kid has guts, man," Cooper said.
So did the Lightning (30-9-3). The night before in Ottawa, Cooper delivered a pointed message in his postgame news conference, saying that "entitlement’ had started creeping in with the league’s best team.
This wasn’t pretty, but Tampa Bay found a way — in the second half of a back to back, with its backup goalie in — to finish a five-game road trip with seven of 10 possible points.
"I thought it was outstanding," Cooper said. "You challenge these guys and they continue to answer the bell. This was an easy one to mail in. It’s a five-game road trip, back to back, you go through customs (Saturday night). Pretty gutty effort by the guys."
This was an impressive Lightning debut for Louis Domingue, who stopped 34 of 36 shots in his first NHL start since getting dropped by the Coyotes in late October.
The players showed some fight in a chippy game befitting two division rivals who dislike each other. Yanni Gourde had two goals and his first career Gordie Howe hat trick (goal, assist, fight). Nikita Kucherov scored his league-high matching 27th.
"We believe in each other in this room," Stamkos said. "I don’t think anyone feels entitled."
Said Callahan: "Everyone here knows how to play. Call it what you want. Call it entitlement, call it getting comfortable. The good thing about this group is we know how to self-check and self-evaluate."
Girardi, in the first of a two-year, $6 million deal, is part of that leadership group. He’s fit in perfectly on the third pairing with Braydon Coburn, and is a key cog on the penalty kill. He’s also a presence in the room and in the community. There’s a reason that Girardi, like Callahan, is a former captain with the Rangers. Cooper said when they were going to sign Girardi in the summer, he asked former Rangers teammate Anton Stralman who he modeled himself after in New York. Stralman said Girardi.
Teammates gravitate toward him, calling him one of the funniest guys in the room. That’s why it wasn’t a surprise for teammates to see Girardi making light of his situation between periods.
"He’s a guy that’s going to lay everything on the line for teammates," Johnson said. "He looked like he was in a lot of pain. But he looks good now, so we’ll see."
I remember asking Girardi what goes through his mind when he’s trying to block a shot, stepping in front of a rubber puck going 100 miles per hour. Girardi laughed, saying he doesn’t think about it at all, or it’ll drive him crazy.
It’s unclear when Girardi will be back on the ice. The next game is Tuesday at home against Carolina. But you can bet, the next time a sharpshooter winds up, Girardi will jump in front of it.
"There’s no doubt in my mind when he’s back on the ice, he’ll be doing the same thing," Callahan said. "That’s how he’s made, that’s how he’s built. That’s what’s made him so successful."
Same old "G.’’
First Period—1, Tampa Bay, Girardi 3 (Namestnikov, Gourde), 8:56. 2, Tampa Bay, Johnson 13 (Palat, Girardi), 14:11. Penalties—Point, TB, (roughing), 16:35; Larkin, DET, (boarding), 16:35; Point, TB, Major (fighting), 16:35; Larkin, DET, Major (fighting), 16:35; Kucherov, TB, (interference), 17:16; Hedman, TB, (slashing), 18:23; Gourde, TB, Major (fighting), 18:23; Tatar, DET, Major (fighting), 18:23.
Second Period—3, Detroit, Nyquist 14 (Zetterberg, Bertuzzi), 3:10. 4, Tampa Bay, Gourde 13 (Namestnikov, Killorn), 19:00. Penalties—Stamkos, TB, (roughing), 10:04; Coburn, TB, (tripping), 11:42.
Third Period—5, Detroit, Abdelkader 7 (Mantha), 3:06. 6, Tampa Bay, Kucherov 27 (Stamkos), 13:42. 7, Tampa Bay, Gourde 14 (Palat), 16:05. Penalties—None.
Shots on Goal—Tampa Bay 9-4-11—24. Detroit 12-14-10—36.
Power-play opportunities—Tampa Bay 0 of 0; Detroit 0 of 4.