TAMPA — That the Lightning is struggling to score is tough enough.
But now, due to a rash of injuries, Tampa Bay is turning into AHL Syracuse South.
With veteran wing Ryan Callahan (lower body) the latest to succumb to injury, the Lightning could be without five regular forwards in tonight matchup with the red-hot Rangers, who are going for a club-record-tying 10th consecutive win and looking for revenge for their loss to the Lightning in last season's Eastern Conference final.
"It's a big game for us," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. "I expect our guys to be highly motivated and ready to go."
Lightning center Brian Boyle said the team will miss "big parts of our club." Ondrej Palat (lower body) was already out three to five weeks. Coach Jon Cooper said Wednesday that Tyler Johnson (upper body) and Cedric Paquette (upper body) won't play, and Jonathan Drouin (undisclosed) and Callahan "most likely" would be out, too. The Lightning, which has lost nine of its past 12, called up a forward, Joel Vermin, 23, who could make his NHL debut tonight.
"We've got a tough task ahead of us, especially with all the injuries we have," Cooper said. "But we've been holding our own. As a coach, and a staff, you look to see, 'Are we doing the right things?' And we are. Unfortunately, I don't know why the pucks haven't gone in. But they eventually will. It's not going to stay like this."
The Lightning hopes not. Tampa Bay has scored one or no goals in eight of its past 12 games, including four shutouts, the latest Monday's 1-0 loss to the Panthers. Without Johnson, Paquette and Drouin on Monday, the Lightning played arguably its most complete game, as callups Jonathan Marchessault, Mike Blunden and Matt Taormina played well. But it didn't score, and things won't get any easier facing a stingy Rangers team that allows an average 1.72 goals per game, lowest in the league entered Wednesday.
"The onus is on everyone," Boyle said. "Chances are good, playing the right way is good, but that should be automatic. Now it's time to produce."
Expect the Lightning to lean heavily on its new top line — Vladislav Namestnikov, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov — which was very dangerous Monday, racking up a combined 11 shots. Namestnikov logged a career-high 20 minutes, 39 seconds of playing time, and Stamkos (22:50) and Kucherov (23:32) played season highs. Cooper said part of that was he knew the team would be off Tuesday but said the three "earned the ice."
Marchessault had three shots in 9:11, Blunden four hits in 5:24. Vermin likely will be eased in. But now would be a good time for Alex Killorn, two goals in 19 games, and Valtteri Filppula, one in 20, to produce.
"Sometimes when your big guys go down, other guys step up and take roles," wing Erik Condra said. "I've seen it before with other teams where you had three, four of our stars go down, everyone picks it up. You're able to play more of a team game. Guys play better in more minutes.
"You never know what can happen. Obviously it hurts having some of these skilled guys out, but adversity can make you stronger sometimes."
This will be the teams' first meeting since the Eastern Conference final, when the Lightning beat the Rangers in seven games. Cooper said the Rangers have "found their stride" and hopes the Lightning will soon, too, considering it faces a daunting task, with games against the Ducks, Kings, Capitals and Islanders following before a West Coast trip.
"Is our record (8-9-3) ideal? It is not," Cooper said. "Is it where we expected? No. Do I feel we've left a ton of points on the board in the first 20 games? We do. If this was Game 65, there would be a little bit of worry. It's Game 20, lot of season left. I like the way we're progressing. Just got to keep it going."
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.