BUFFALO, N.Y. — The news on Steven Stamkos' injury couldn't have been much worse Thursday.
Stamkos, 26, is expected to miss approximately four months with a torn lateral meniscus in his right knee, which was surgically repaired Thursday by Dr. Robert LaPrade in Vail, Col. That means the Lightning's captain, top leader and goal scorer will be out until potentially mid March.
But there was a sense of calm and confidence in the Tampa Bay dressing room. There was no pity party, just determination to find a way to keep winning. The Lightning's goal is to make the playoffs so Stamkos has a chance to return for another Stanley Cup run.
"We know we can do this," coach Jon Cooper said.
"We're ready," center Tyler Johnson said.
The reaction isn't surprising considering the Lightning has been in this spot with Stamkos twice before. Stamkos missed 45 games in the 2013-14 season after breaking his right tibia, and Tampa Bay still reached the playoffs. Last season, the Lightning advanced two playoff rounds with Stamkos out with a blood clot, not to mention top-pair defenseman Anton Stralman, who had a fractured leg then and who is currently sidelined with an upper-body injury.
"You've got to take your head out of the sand, dig in your heels and march on," Cooper said. "Unfortunately, this happened to us before and the guys found a way, but we have to look at this as a challenge.
"Now everyone has to pitch in. Yes, we are going to miss (Stamkos) dearly, but our season's over by no means."
Reasons to believe in Lightning success
History: Don't underestimate the importance of the Lightning knowing it has won without Stamkos before.
"Look back three years ago (when Stamkos broke his right leg), I was a brand new coach, to watch your best player go down, you're wallowing in self-pity," Cooper said. "You're so uncertain about everything. Now it's different because we've been down this road. The more you're put in the situation, unfortunately, the better equipped you are to handle it."
The team knows it doesn't have to alter its system or structure in replacing Stamkos. Players have already seen their roles expand. Other veterans have adjusted their leadership roles.
DEPTH: Sure, Stamkos entered Thursday's game against the Sabres leading the Lightning in goals with nine. He's one of the best scorers in the league. But wing Nikita Kucherov, with 21 points, can carry a similar load. He's playing arguably the best hockey of his career. And as shown when Stamkos missed the first part of the playoffs last season, Kucherov can elevate his game; he had 11 goals and 19 points in 17 playoff games.
"You can see he's taken a step in all aspects of his game," Cooper said. "And now we need him to keep that going."
Also, Tyler Johnson, with just nine points and minus-6 in 17 games, said he wants to be better. Vladislav Namestnikov will get a shot at centering one of the top two lines. And don't forget wing Jonathan Drouin, who returned from injury Thursday.
"Stamkos is a great player," Sabres coach Dan Bylsma said. "But it's one guy in their lineup. They're deep. They know how to play and win without having your best guy."
Goaltending: With arguably the top one-two tandem in the league in Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy, the Lightning will always have a chance to win.
Reasons for concern
Inconsistency: Even with Stamkos this season, the Lightning hasn't played with consistency or urgency. It has been plagued by slow starts, allowing the first goal in 10 of 17 games entering Thursday. Maybe Stamkos' injury will be the kick Tampa Bay needs to sharpen its focus.
Parity: The Lightning entered Thursday seventh in the Eastern Conference with 21 points. But it was just four points ahead of No. 13 Philadelphia. It was third in the Atlantic Division, seven points behind leader Montreal. One bad losing streak and Tampa Bay will have to fight its way into the playoffs again. "Twenty-nine other teams don't care who we have in or out," center Brian Boyle said. Said Cooper: "There's no guarantee."