There is no doubt the Lightning is going through some adversity with seven players injured — down from nine — including Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and Ryan Malone. And its 5-5-1 record entering Saturday in 11 games without Stamkos is a step back from its 12-5-0 start. But an argument can be made that what the team is accomplishing is, in its way, almost as impressive.
Consider the Lightning has eight rookies on its roster and 13 players with fewer than 82 games of NHL experience, the equivalent of a full season. Much of that is because Tampa Bay is committed to building from within the organization. But injuries have forced more callups from AHL Syracuse.
"They're going to call us the Syracuse Lightning pretty soon," Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper joked.
That is not to overlook goaltender Ben Bishop, who is 4-3-1 with a 1.76 goals-against average and a .942 save percentage since Stamkos went down. But the poise and creativity with which the kids are playing should not be minimized.
For Cooper, who led most of them to the 2012 AHL title with Norfolk and was with all of them last season at Syracuse before he was promoted, the progression is inevitable.
"I can't emphasize how much you learn in the American League," Cooper said. "But it wasn't only the learning. These guys were winning. That really helps your mind-set. They learned how to be pros in the American League and brought that here. It's going to take time to get the NHL game down, but because of how much we have to play them, the process is accelerated."
Perhaps the kids fade amidst the grind of an NHL season. But you couldn't help but notice rookie Ondrej Palat on Thursday against the Senators setting up Marty St. Louis for two goals with plays of skill and determination.
Hedman and fellow defenseman Keith Aulie went down against Ottawa, and 6-foot-8 rookie Andrej Sustr played 20:51 and was plus-2.
Rookie wing J.T. Brown is a dynamic skater who entered Saturday with 25 shots in 11 games. And defenseman Matt Taormina, in his 50th NHL game Thursday, stepped in after his callup from Syracuse and blocked three shots and had two hits and a takeaway.
"It's probably not an ideal situation," Cooper said of counting on so many youngsters. "But we're going to be a better team for it. It's a little bit of a trial by fire, but so far all the guys have passed the test."