MONTREAL — Matt Carle remembers those nights this season when, all too often, he was a spectator.
The Lightning's 31-year-old defenseman sat on the bench unused for long stretches of games several times. But that was better than the 18 times Carle was a healthy scratch and for the first time in his career wore a suit during games instead of a Tampa Bay sweater.
"You want to do more," he said.
Carle is doing more now, a lot more, and it couldn't be coming at a better time for the injury-ravaged Lightning as the playoffs loom Wednesday.
Carle is logging top-pairing minutes — he has played 20 or more in five of his past eight games — filling an important void while the Lightning is without Anton Stralman (fractured left leg), and more recently Victor Hedman (upper body). His two assists in Thursday's 4-2 against the Devils gave him eight points in his past 23 games after being shut out in the first 40.
"You always want to be playing minutes and always want to be able to contribute when you can," Carle said. "For me, it's right now, and I hope I'll continue going forward here."
It's a stunning turnaround. Some doubted whether Carle, the team's highest-paid defenseman with a $5.5 million salary cap hit, would even finish this season in Tampa Bay, much less the final two seasons on his contract. His declining role and cap hit sparked speculation he might be dealt before the Feb. 29 trade deadline. Carle's contract, and modified no-move clause, made such a move challenging.
Carle was frustrated he wasn't playing. But he didn't sulk, didn't complain publicly or walk away, still wanting to remain in Tampa Bay. Carle just kept working and waiting, hoping his time would come. And it has.
"We need him now," coach Jon Cooper said. "Especially when you've got (Hedman) and (Stralman) out. He's a veteran in this league. There's a kid who has played in two Stanley Cup finals. He knows the league and how to play.
"Has he not been in the lineup every night? He hasn't. But he's been a pro this whole time, and there's another guy it's paying off for."
Carle has never had a season quite like this since entering the league in 2005-06. His minutes have fluctuated, and his 16:41 average ice time is his lowest since his second full season, 2007-08 (16:33). His eight points in 63 games are just two more than he had in just 12 games his rookie year in San Jose.
Not that many people would feel sorry for a player making $5.5 million, but wing Ryan Callahan said you'd never tell in Carle's attitude if he was playing 20 minutes or watching on television in the dressing room.
After being a healthy scratch in 10 of 13 games in January, Carle was thrust into a regular role when Jason Garrison got hurt Feb. 8 in Ottawa. Carle never doubted his ability to still play in the league. But getting regular minutes is what he needed to find his rhythm. He got his first points of the season (a goal and an assist) in a win in Pittsburgh on Feb. 20.
Playing regularly helped Carle when he was asked to step in and play alongside Hedman in the top pairing after Stralman got hurt March 25 against the Islanders in the first period. Carle played a season-high 24:27 that night, and he has gotten time on the power play as well.
Carle has been far from perfect, such as getting beat by the Islanders' Matt Martin on a rush/breakaway in Monday's 5-2 loss. But he also made great reads, including finding Valtteri Filppula with a long stretch pass Thursday, leading to Tampa Bay's second goal. He's plus-5 with four points in his past four games. Associate coach Rick Bowness said this is the best he has seen Carle play this season.
"Guys … getting more minutes like myself have to take advantage of it," Carle said. "We're put in situations you wouldn't normally be in. You've just got to run with it and enjoy it."
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.