BRANDON — The Lightning already appeared in need of help on defense for its playoff push, entering tonight's game against Nashville just one point ahead of ninth place in the Eastern Conference.
Then came Thursday's news that veteran defenseman Jason Garrison is expected to be out 3-5 weeks with a lower body injury.
"He's one of our best players defensively," defenseman Anton Stralman said. "A tough loss."
Garrison's absence could make it even more of a priority for GM Steve Yzerman to address his blueline before the Feb. 29 trade deadline
Garrison, who got hurt in the first period Monday in Ottawa, is steady top-four defenseman and key penalty killer. At 6 feet 2, 223 pounds, Garrison is one of the team leaders in blocks and hits, averaging the third most average even-strength ice time (16:18 per game).
"He's a big part of our team," coach Jon Cooper said. "Guys are going to get hurt, it's unfortunate for Gary because he's been a rock for us back there. We'll have to adjust and somebody's going to have to fill in and take his minutes."
Veteran Matt Carle, who has been a healthy scratch in 10 of the past 14 games, is expected to get more opportunity to play. The Lightning also called up defenseman Slater Koekkoek from AHL Syracuse. The 2012 first-round pick, a smooth-skating left-shot, has played in four NHL games the past two years.
"He's been up with us before, the kid can really skate," Cooper said. "He's got good gaps, he can play at this level. So we should have no problem there."
Cooper acknowledges the Lightning has been "leaky" defensively recently, allowing a combined nine goals (one empty-netter) in back-to-back losses to Ottawa and Montreal on Monday and Tuesday. Garrison, who has four goals and three assists, had played well in a pairing with Andrej Sustr, but his injury sparked the Lightning to do some shuffling, with top pairing Victor Hedman and Stralman sometimes split up.
Said Stralman: "I think we have some depth, good players on our team that can pick up big minutes."
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.