NEWARK, N.J. — The Lightning will be in the playoffs when they begin Wednesday, and it could even have home-ice advantage for the first round.
The question is, will it have enough players for a full lineup?
The season has come to a you've-got-to-be-kidding moment for Tampa Bay when it comes to injuries. Having previously lost top scorer Steven Stamkos (blood clot) and top-pair defenseman Anton Stralman (fractured left leg), the Lightning may play the final two games of the regular season, including tonight against the Devils, without Victor Hedman (upper body) and Ryan Callahan (lower body).
"That's a core group of guys," center Brian Boyle said. "Guys you build your team around."
Think that's bad? Goalie Ben Bishop has been there before. So has wing Erik Condra. And the two said the Lightning could take a page from the 2012-13 Senators — dubbed the "Pesky Sens" — in surviving while short-handed. That Ottawa team, in a lockout-shortened season, lost Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Erik Karlsson (torn Achilles), star forward Jason Spezza (back surgery), starting goalie Craig Anderson (ankle) and forward Milan Michalek (knee). Yet the Senators found a way to make the playoffs as a seventh seed and win a first-round series against the Canadiens.
"Within five games, we lost three or four guys," Condra said. "Mentally, it's almost like a make-or-break. 'This season is going to go one way or another.' It took us a few games to figure it out, but we ended up coming through and making the playoffs.
"We weren't the most skilled team. But nobody wanted to play against us because we were annoying and never quit."
Condra said this Lightning team, the defending Eastern Conference champion, has more skill than the 2012-13 Senators. Tampa Bay still has the Triplets of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov, and Bishop, an Ottawa backup who has developed into a Vezina Trophy-caliber goalie after being acquired near the 2013 trade deadline. The Lightning can lock up a No. 2 playoff seed and home ice in the first round with two points in its final two games.
But how the Senators won — with a simple, structured, defensive-oriented style — is what the Lightning may need to play until its injured stars return.
"Guys came up, and we were playing a great team game," Bishop said of the Pesky Sens. "We weren't giving up too much. Everyone was doing the right thing. Sometimes … when you try to do too much, you make mistakes. Sometimes it helps to dumb the game down a bit."
The Lightning showed flashes of that style in Tuesday's 3-2 loss to the Rangers. Tampa Bay went out with a shoot-first mentality, racking up 17 of the first 19 shots and taking a 2-0 lead. Unlike Monday's 5-2 loss to the Islanders, a game in which the Lightning allowed five breakaways, it was tighter defensively until the Rangers rallied.
Tampa Bay now has little margin for error offensively, having scored two or fewer goals in four of its past six games, and three goals in the other two.
Those 2012-13 Senators, buoyed by Bishop, allowed a league-low 100 goals in 48 games. Karlsson, Michalek and Anderson were back for the playoffs. Spezza returned in the middle of a second-round loss, five-game loss to the Penguins.
Stralman is out at least through the first round, and likely longer. Stamkos, with a team-high 36 goals, is expected to miss 1-3 months after Monday's vascular surgery.
"Whenever you miss a guy like that, it's a game-changer," Bishop said. "But you've got to bring the team together here, and it's kind of one of those things where everyone has got to come together to play. We can't rely on one person to go out there and do it for us.
"We've dealt with this before, and it doesn't make it easier when it's multiple guys. I've dealt with it before, bunch of guys go down, usually a team comes together and finds ways to win each night."
Like those Pesky Sens.
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.