Monday, April 23, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Big injuries will test Lightning's depth, resolve

NEW YORK — For the Lightning, it was bad enough losing top-pairing defenseman Anton Stralman for at least the first round of the playoffs.

But then to know it might have to go the entire postseason without captain and leading scorer Steven Stamkos, sidelined one to three months due to a blood clot in his right collarbone? General manager Steve Yzerman calling it "incredibly bad luck" doesn't begin to cover it.

"It's Stralman and Stamkos. What can you say?" coach Jon Cooper said after the Stamkos news was announced after Saturday night's win against the Devils. "Those guys are irreplaceable. Our depth will definitely be tested."

As well as its resolve.

Though Tampa Bay needs just one point to clinch a playoff spot, and it can still win the Atlantic Division, it faces daunting odds to return to the Stanley Cup final for the second straight year. Mentally, the Lightning has to shake off the deflation of missing two of its best players — and leaders — as it begins a season-ending four-game road trip tonight against the Islanders.

"Nobody is going to feel sorry for us," Yzerman said. "We'll figure out a way to win. We have a good coaching staff, and if we have to adjust things, if (goalies) Ben Bishop and Andrei Vasilevskiy have to stand on their head every night, that's what they're going to have to do.

"We just have to stick with it. Strange things happen."

The Lightning's goaltending, its strength all season, will be depended on even more. Bishop, who is likely to be a Vezina Trophy finalist and should garner consideration for the Hart Trophy, entered Sunday leading the league in goals-against average (2.00). Tampa Bay, already shifting to more of a defensive identity this season, might need to win low-scoring, tight-checking games such as Saturday's, when Bishop made 25 saves in a 3-1 victory.

Though the Lightning has won two of four games since Stralman fractured his left leg March 25, his absence has made a noticeable difference.

"(Stralman has) been our best player the last two years, there's no question about it," Bishop said. "You can see how much he's missed because he's played almost every game. He's been a rock back there. I think he's been our MVP the last two years, and you're going to hurt when you miss somebody that good, somebody who controls the game as well as he does. But it gives other guys an opportunity to step up, and right now we need someone to step up and fill those shoes."

Defenseman Victor Hedman has stepped up, scoring two goals in his past three games, maintaining his aggressive offensive play even without Stralman, his steady partner. Veteran Matt Carle has shouldered a larger load, including logging 23 minutes Thursday against the Canadiens, often playing alongside Hedman while joining the second power play.

"This is the best Matty Carle has played all year," associate coach Rick Bowness said.

Without Stamkos, who leads the team with 36 goals, more pressure is put on the Triplets — Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov — who were reunited Saturday. Johnson becomes a No. 1 center, and Kucherov, who clinched his first 30-goal season Saturday, becomes the go-to scorer and primary option on the power play, which ranked 25th in the league and is in a 5-for-49 funk.

This would seem like a great time to call up touted wing Jonathan Drouin, who is red-hot with nine goals in his past nine games with AHL Syracuse. But assistant GM Julien BriseBois said no callup was planned and Drouin is day to day with a minor lower-body injury.

Some unsung heroes will need to emerge up front, whether that's Jonathan Marchessault, J.T. Brown or Vladislav Namestnikov. Maybe Stralman's and Stamkos' absences will galvanize a team that has been inconsistent all season and force it to play with the desperation and compete level that have been elusive at times.

The Lightning isn't the only team dealing with significant injuries. One example: Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury is out indefinitely with a concussion and star forward Evgeni Malkin is expected out until mid May with an upper-body problem.

"It happens a lot, unfortunately, and teams find a way to survive," Yzerman said. "It can be a huge lift for a team if you survive and all of a sudden you get this guy back, then this guy."

Right now, that seems like a big "if" for the Lightning.

Contact Joe Smith at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.

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