Sunday, December 17, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Replacing Stralman won't be easy for Lightning

TAMPA — Friday marked exactly three years since Jon Cooper was named coach of the Lightning.

There wasn't much celebrating, especially after Cooper lost one of his top defenseman, Anton Stralman, to a fractured leg. Stralman is expected to miss the rest of the regular season and likely at least the first round of the playoffs.

Happy Anniversary.

On the short list of players the Lightning can ill afford to lose, Stralman, 29, is in the top three. Maybe top two. If goalie Ben Bishop, the team MVP, goes down, at least there's Andrei Vasilevskiy. If captain Steven Stamkos is out, as he was for four months with a broken leg in 2013-14, there's Nikita Kucherov and Tyler Johnson.

But there's no replacement for Stralman, a top-pairing defenseman and power-play quarterback who plays 22 minutes a game and is one of just two Lightning right-shot defensemen. His partner, Victor Hedman, is considered the team's best defenseman, but Hall of Fame defenseman and Panthers analyst Denis Potvin said Stralman is "like 1B." Stralman, a smooth-skating Swede, is a calming, stabilizing influence.

"Stralman is a one-man breakout in the d-zone," Cooper said. "Right when the eye of the storm is about to convey itself around our goal crease, Stralman blows it away."

But though Stralman's absence could significantly hurt the Lightning's Stanley Cup chances, there was deflation but not defeat in the dressing room Friday night after the defenseman was hurt against the Islanders. The resilient group — which has overcome injuries to Stamkos, Hedman and Johnson, among others — gained resolve from those experiences.

And it showed in a 7-4 win over the Islanders.

"I don't think there was one person in our locker room saying, 'Oh my gosh, now what?' " Cooper said. "(Stralman) went down, he played three minutes in the game, and we came out and beat a playoff-bound team and played well. Literally, we said in the locker room, 'We've got to pick 'Strals' up.' We didn't realize we were going to do it that well."

Overcoming Stralman's loss in one game is one thing. But over a long stretch, especially a playoff series, that's where it gets iffy. The Lightning might have been fine without Stamkos from November to March in 2013-14 and Hedman from October to late November last season. But the timing of the injury is what makes it especially tough. It's not quite the same as losing Bishop right before the Lightning's 2014 first-round playoff sweep by the Canadiens, but it's also not that far off.

"It's the definition of adversity," defenseman Jason Garrison said. "It's how you respond. We all know how big of a loss it is. It just means we can't sit around and dwell on it. We've got to make sure we collectively bring ourselves up."

It starts with Hedman, who said he's willing take on more responsibility and minutes. And he'll get more attention from other team "because the difference between (Tampa Bay's) No. 1 and No. 2 (defensemen) is huge," Potvin said. "My guess is Hedman is going to see the puck in his corner a lot more. He's going to turn and chase, going to get bumped, going to have those cycle battles that can really wear you down."

Matt Carle, a healthy scratch for stretches this season, could get an opportunity on the second power-play unit, as he did Friday, when he played a season-high 24:58. Several others will have to step in on the penalty kill. Slater Koekkoek, a 2012 first-round draft pick, got called up Saturday from AHL Syracuse and should get to play.

Stralman is such a well-loved teammate, there's no doubt the Lightning could use him as a rallying cry to extend its season so he can return.

"I'd rather have Stralman and not the rallying cry," Cooper said.

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