TAMPA — Considering that Monday was defenseman Anton Stralman's first game in two months, on a freshly-healed broken left leg, jumping right into the Eastern Conference final wasn't going to be easy.
"It was a little fast in the first period," Stralman, 29, said, smiling. "But as the game went on, I settled in and felt more comfortable."
And the Lightning was encouraged with how Stralman played — and felt — in Game 2 while logging 18 minutes, 39 seconds of ice time, second among defensemen only to fellow Swede and partner Victor Hedman.
"He looked like he hadn't missed a beat," Hedman said. "It's obviously really good to have him back."
It wasn't a perfect game for Stralman. He scored a goal but was minus-1; he was on the ice for two of the Penguins three goals and Sidney Crosby got behind him for the overtime winner. But having Stralman back is crucial for the Lightning in trying to advance to its second consecutive Stanley Cup final, especially in having to contain the Penguins' Crosby, Evgeni Malkin & Co.
This best-of-seven series, tied 1-1, resumes tonight at Amalie Arena.
"You want Stralman on the ice," coach Jon Cooper said. "I think he's a top-pairing defenseman on any team in the league. When he gets his legs going, and I think that was a first game he had going, but as everyone else, he's got better in him too. It's just tough that his first game has got to be against one of the fastest teams in the league. I thought he did a great job. He's a great defenseman. If we're going to move forward, we need him and we're glad to have him back."
Stralman, along with captain Steven Stamkos (blood clot), sidelined in back-to-back weeks late in the season, were two players the Lightning could ill afford to lose.
Goalie Ben Bishop, a Vezina Trophy finalist, said at the time of Stralman's injury he had been the team's MVP and arguably its best player the past two seasons. Cooper calls him a "one-man breakout," providing a calming and steadying influence. Stralman averaged 22 minutes in the regular season, playing on both the power play and penalty kill, complementing and freeing Hedman.
"We have a chemistry going," Hedman said.
That's why it was tough for the Lightning when it took longer than some expected for Stralman to return, a little more than seven weeks. Stralman, usually an even-keeled veteran, didn't let the long wait get to him.
"It wasn't too frustrating," he said. "It is what it is. You can't really control it. It's just a matter of doing all the stuff you need to do to get to (a return). It wasn't always fun, maybe, but I don't think I was too frustrated throughout the time."
Stralman, skating with the team the past few weeks, started doing contact before the start of the series. He said he didn't think about his leg Monday, or let it impact his play. The Lightning had a plan to ease Stralman in, playing him a little less in the first period before gradually building up his minutes, including 1:36 on the penalty kill.
Cooper said he thought Stralman got stronger as the game wore on, saying, "Stralman is Stralman."
Pain, Stralman said, wasn't an issue.
"It's a lot of components," Stralman said. "It's about feeling good skating, and playing, pain or no pain. It's about feeling confident and comfortable, doing what you have to do. And it was good."
Which is good news for the Lightning.
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.