By Damian Cristodero
TAMPA — Steve Eminger said he never played a game like it, and Cory Murphy agreed it was unique.
Lightning defensemen had no set partners Monday against the Stars. On one shift, Eminger and Murphy might have been together. On the next, Eminger might have been with David Koci or Andrej Meszaros or … anyone.
By the end of the 4-2 victory, each defenseman played with the five other blue-liners.
"I wasn't doing much thinking about who I was playing with," Eminger said. "You just play."
Said coach Rick Tocchet: "It's almost like you have to laugh about it."
This is what happens when you have as many injuries as Tampa Bay's defense. Minor-leaguers are promoted, waiver pickups are added, and the coaching staff has to figure out who plays best with whom.
Sometimes it is better just to rotate players. The Lightning played three defensive regulars against the Stars with a converted forward, a rookie in his fourth NHL game and a waiver pickup who made it to the arena two hours before the puck dropped.
The rotation allowed associate coach Mike Sullivan, who runs the defense, to fit in Murphy, claimed off re-entry waivers from the Panthers, and limit the minutes of Koci, a forward until about 10 days ago, and rookie Kevin Quick.
But it put pressure on the regulars to log substantially more minutes.
Eminger, averaging 21:17, played 28:46. Lukas Krajicek, averaging 17:02, played 25:31. Meszaros, averaging 24:33, played 26:10.
"There's obviously more pressure, and I think sometimes guys are put into roles they don't expect," Eminger said. "But for myself, not that I like that there's injuries, but I like the fact I'm playing a lot. I like the pressure. I like to be counted on. I think I play better in those situations."
"It's just part of the deal," Krajicek said. "You have to be ready to play 100 percent on every shift."
It may not change any time soon. For tonight's game with the Sabres at the St. Pete Times Forum, Tampa Bay likely is again without Jamie Heward (concussion), Paul Ranger (upper body), Marek Malik (ankle) and Matt Smaby (lower body).
It also has been without Eminger (upper body) and Krajicek (fingers), and the only reason Meszaros did not miss a game after taking 64 stitches in his face and mouth after being hit with a puck was force of will.
Since Dec. 27, there have been nine transactions involving defensemen from AHL Norfolk, including Tuesday's in which Quick was returned to the Admirals and Ty Wishart was called up for the second time.
Despite the turmoil, the Lightning is on an 8-5-1 run and has won four of its past six.
"Once you get into the game, you just react and play," Murphy said. "A lot of talking and trying to keep it simple."
And some help from the forwards, who have bolstered the stressed blue line by coming back more to the defensive zone to help get the puck.
"I give them a lot of credit," Tocchet said of his patchwork defense, but added, "We really have to play, not mistake-free, but as a five-man unit. If you don't, you're in trouble."
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]