Thursday, April 26, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Jones: Lightning believes there is nothing it can't overcome

PITTSBURGH — Did someone step on a crack? Maybe walk under a ladder? Cross paths with a black cat? Break a mirror?

All the above?

Let's add it all up, shall we?

Steven Stamkos has a blood clot. He's out. Anton Stralman has a broken leg. He's out. And now goalie and team MVP Ben Bishop has a lower-body injury that has his status very much in jeopardy for Game 2 and beyond in the Eastern Conference final.

Bad luck has scored a hat trick against the Lightning with those three injuries. Better not throw your hat. The way things are going for the Lightning these days, it'll hit Nikita Kucherov and put him out for a month.

Hockey is a contact sport. Players get hurt. The playoffs are especially known for sending players to the trainer's table. Or the hospital. But yeesh, have you ever seen anything like this? Not only is the injury bug hitting the Lightning, it is going after Tampa Bay's best players.

These aren't just injuries, they are bizarre injuries suffered in freaky circumstances. A blood clot? A fractured leg from a normal on-ice tussle? A leg injury to a goalie without contact? Are you kidding me?

I keep waiting for someone to get run over by the Zamboni.

But here's the thing: None of this seems to be bothering the Lightning. Knock out this guy, take out that guy, and it just doesn't matter.

You keep thinking that eventually it will all catch up to Tampa Bay. That it's only a matter of time.

You keep wondering which star has to be ripped out of the lineup before it's too much to overcome. It has to happen, doesn't it?

You would think that any second now, the Lightning would look to the hockey heavens, shake a fist and cry, "Enough!"

It has never happened.

"You can't have the 'Why us?' " Lightning forward J.T. Brown said.

Instead, the question seems to be: Who's up next?

"Our boys are pretty driven," coach Jon Cooper said.

Without Stamkos and Stralman in these playoffs, the Lightning is 9-2. Without Bishop for all but 13 minutes and change Friday night against the Penguins, the Lightning won behind 21-year-old goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, and won rather easily.

Confidence is never shaken, hope is never abandoned. It's a mentality more than a year in the making.

"I think a lot of that comes from last year," forward Ryan Callahan said, "and the confidence in this group coming into this year. The biggest thing this postseason was all the injuries. We've had that mentality — it's the next guy up, and the next guy steps in and does the job."

Stamkos goes down, and Kucherov steps up. Stralman goes away, and Victor Hedman comes on. And now Bishop goes out flat on his back, and the kid Russian, Vasilevskiy, rushes in and stands on his head.

No one ever panicked, even as the team's best player was carted off right in front of them.

"A big reason for why we've gotten to where we are this playoff season is because of the demeanor and calmness on our bench," Cooper said. "Can I sit here and say two years ago when Ben went down (with an injury in the playoffs) that we had the same attitude? Probably not."

The Lightning didn't. When Bishop was injured two postseasons ago, the Lightning was swept in the first round.

"But this year, they're a team," Cooper said. "Nobody wanted to see this happen to Ben at all. (But) there was a calm among everybody that, 'Hey, we can do this.' "

They did it Friday, and they've done it throughout this postseason.

And they might have to continue doing it.

Stamkos and Stralman are skating, but there is no word on whether either will return soon. As far as Bishop, the way he left the ice Friday, you would've thought that he is out for the rest of this season and maybe part of next.

Incredibly, however, he is listed as day to day.

Yet, even if that day is Monday for Game 2 or a week from now or next season, the Lightning truly believes there's nothing it can't overcome, whether it's an injury, a deficit or an opponent.

"It's just being in these situations before," Cooper said. "How we dealt with them. How you deal with just all the unknown circumstances that can happen. I think our guys, they've passed every test."

Maybe, just maybe, the Lightning has succeeded not despite the obstacles and injuries but because of them.

"I think just those experiences have joined our team a little closer together," Cooper said. "It's really gratifying to watch these guys go."

Cooper then paid his team the best compliment there is:

"I feel fortunate that I'm their coach."

He should be. He has a team that refuses to give up.

With all that has happened, no one would blame the Lightning if it threw in the towel. It has plenty of valid excuses at this point.

Instead, look for the Lightning to do something else, like line up and play with whoever is available to play.

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