Saturday, June 16, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning survives, thrives minus Stamkos

It is time to acknowledge what the Lightning has accomplished in its six weeks without Steven Stamkos.

Asked after Monday's 6-1 rout of the Panthers what he thought of Tampa Bay's 11-6-3 record without its star center, captain Marty St. Louis said, "I think we'd pay for that."

When Stamkos went down Nov. 11 with a broken right tibia, some in the media predicted the season that got off to a 12-5-0 start would capsize. From the organization, the talk was how the Lightning needed to stay in the playoff "conversation" while waiting for Stamkos' return.

Instead, Tampa Bay has solidified itself in the playoff picture.

After Saturday's 2-1 shootout loss to the Canadiens, the Lightning is second in the Atlantic Division and third in the Eastern Conference. It also is seven points ahead of the Maple Leafs, who hold the East's final wild-card berth. That is a comforting gap.

"You just hope that when 'Stammer' does come back, all of a sudden we're that much better of a team," coach Jon Cooper said. "We have to guard against the, 'Well, Stammer's back. That's it, we're good.' If we can have that mentality we have now and have Stammer down the road, I really like where our team is headed."

It is headed in the right direction because goaltending — especially Ben Bishop — has been outstanding and because St. Louis is at a point-a-game pace since Stamkos' injury.

But Tampa Bay also has succeeded because a roster with eight rookies among 13 players with less than a full 82-game season of experience (it increased to nine and 14 with Friday's promotion of AHL Syracuse defenseman Dmitry Korobov) rose to the task when the injury list, led by Stamkos, swelled to nine. The list now is at six.

"A lot of guys are playing minutes that they probably wouldn't have played," St. Louis said. "They're getting repetitions in the trenches at a time when there is high demand to be successful because we have a lot of bodies out. These are valuable times for them to grow as players."

For Cooper, the moment of maximum growth might have occurred after November's 0-3-1 western road trip. Since then, the Lightning is 9-3-3.

"We just got our butts kicked all over California. We're either going to sit here and whine about this or we're going to make ourselves a hockey team," Cooper said. "You beg for (Stamkos) to get back, but nobody is pining away, not at all. That's why we're a better team now than we were two weeks ago, than a month ago, most definitely than we were at the beginning of the season."

Even without its best player.

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