TAMPA — When teammates interacted with Victor Hedman in the Lightning dressing room Friday morning, their genuine concern began to be replaced by cautious optimism.
Some had feared the worst when Hedman's head slammed into the boards after a shoulder-to-chest hit by the Stars' Jamie Benn late in the second period Thursday. They worried about Hedman's long-term health, much less the difficult task of replacing the Norris Trophy-caliber defenseman.
But the Lightning was encouraged that Hedman felt much better Friday. And though coach Jon Cooper said Hedman was doubtful for tonight's game against the Sabres at Amalie Arena, it sounded like he wouldn't be sidelined for an extended period.
"He's a really good defenseman in this league," Cooper said. "You don't want to lose any of your guys, especially him. …We're confident he'll be back soon, just not (tonight)."
Cooper said there had been no diagnosis of Hedman, who went through the concussion protocol Thursday night. Hedman has a history of concussions — he has had at least two in his seven-season NHL career — so that would be a concern.
Hedman didn't practice and was unavailable for comment. He missed six weeks last season after fracturing a finger in mid October.
"Unfortunately, 'Heddy' has had some tough luck in his career with injuries," captain Steven Stamkos said. "He always gets off to good starts and something happens. So we hope this isn't bad and he can get back sooner rather than later."
Defenseman Slater Koekkoek was called up from AHL Syracuse on Friday to provide depth. Tampa Bay needs it. Besides Hedman's injury, defenseman Nikita Nesterov was suspended two games Friday by the NHL's Department of Player Safety for boarding the Stars' Curtis McKenzie shortly after Hedman was injured.
Nesterov, who received a five-minute penalty and a game misconduct, had a phone hearing Friday with the league, which ruled the onus was on Nesterov to avoid or minimize contact instead of launching McKenzie into the boards. Nesterov said he didn't intend to hurt McKenzie, who was hospitalized and put on crutches.
"Bad situation," Nesterov said.
So is the Lightning's two-game losing streak.
Stamkos said a key reason Tampa Bay didn't drop three in a row during the regular season last year was that it didn't let things "snowball," it fixed issues quickly. And that's what Tampa Bay did Friday, focusing on what it believes cost it the past two games: special teams.
The penalty kill, which has allowed seven goals in 15 opportunities, ranked last in the NHL entering Friday. The power play fizzled Thursday, going 0-for-2 in the 5-3 loss, and the units were shuffled Friday: Stamkos was with Jonathan Drouin, Valtteri Filppula, Ryan Callahan and Jason Garrison.
Stamkos said the Lightning was "dumbing it down" and simplifying. Wing Ondrej Palat said he believes it has been trying too much and rushing.
"Sometimes, we have so much skill, you want to make the nice play," Stamkos said.
With the penalty kill, Palat said the Lightning has been coming out of its structure. "We have to do what our coaches tell us to do, not be on a different page," Palat said. "We have to be better."
Cooper said he believed Thursday's loss might have been the Lightning's best game of the season, racking up 70 shot attempts and holding Dallas to 21 shots on goal. The way Cooper sees it, Tampa Bay (3-2-0) has won a couple of games it didn't play particularly well in.
"Hopefully," Cooper said, "we're getting all the bad stuff out now."
WORLD CUP: Lightning assistant general manager Pat Verbeek was named director of player personnel for Team North America in the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. The team will consist of the top players from Canada and the United States who are 23 or younger. Oilers coach Todd McLellan was named coach.
Contact Joe Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.