Sunday, February 25, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning's Tyler Johnson day to day, could play Game 1 vs. Detroit

TAMPA — Coach Jon Cooper appeared as livid as he has ever been after a game Saturday night.

Not only had the Lightning lost 5-2 to the Canadiens, it had lost center Tyler Johnson to a scary upper-body injury after he hit his head against the boards after a post-whistle shove from Montreal's Greg Pateryn in the first period. Cooper called the play "egregious." With the playoffs opening Wednesday against the Red Wings at Amalie Arena, the mountain of injuries were piling up, including captain Steven Stamkos, defenseman Anton Stralman and wings Ryan Callahan and Nikita Kucherov.

"I don't even want to talk about it," Cooper said, shaking his head. "Anything about the game?"

The game wasn't much better for the Lightning.

The good news for Tampa Bay on Sunday was Johnson was considered day to day and could be ready for Game 1 against Detroit, general manager Steve Yzerman said. The team also could have back defenseman Victor Hedman (upper body), Kucherov (undisclosed) and Callahan (lower body).

But of equal concern should be how the banged-up Lightning scuffled down the stretch, losing five of its final eight games. Though injuries make it difficult to gauge, Tampa Bay is far from clicking at the most important time of the year. Two of those three wins came against the league's lowest-scoring team, the Devils, and another came over the worst-in-the-league Maple Leafs, who outplayed Tampa Bay, which was bailed out by goalie Ben Bishop.

"If we think it's going to be just (flipping) a switch heading into the playoffs, that we're going to play well, we're going to have energy, well everyone hopes so," wing Ondrej Palat said. "Because the first two periods (Saturday) were awful."

Sure, Saturday's regular-season finale at the Bell Centre meant nothing in the standings. But if the Lightning is going to overcome the significant injuries to Stralman and Stamkos, among others, it has to elevate its play on both ends of the ice.

"We should be better. We've got to be better," center Brian Boyle said. "We've got a couple days to do that in practices and take advantage."

The Lightning returns to practice today and Tuesday in Brandon as it shifts its focus to Detroit, which gave Tampa Bay all it could handle in a first-round series last year, the Lightning prevailing in seven games.

Cooper said a key to Tampa Bay's playoff run last year was its health. The Lightning had no major injuries through the first three rounds; in the Stanley Cup final, Johnson (broken wrist) and Bishop (torn groin) got hurt. This time the Lightning will be hampered from the start.

"Whatever your role is, you've got to try to get better," Boyle said. "You play more minutes, you've got to make an impact. Don't pace yourself out there. It's playoffs. It's not a sprint in terms of how long it can be, but you've got to … put more pressure on yourself, look into the mirror and bring a little bit more each night."

One player who did that in the last two games was wing Jonathan Drouin, his return to the Lightning promising to be one of the most compelling stories in the playoffs. Drouin — who requested a trade in November, was suspended after refusing to play for AHL Syracuse, then requested to return last month — scored in his first two games after getting called up from Syracuse, and he logged 19 minutes, 27 seconds of ice time against Montreal, second most in his career.

Though Drouin was a healthy scratch in 20 of 26 playoff games last season, he'll likely be in the top six from the get-go this time. "Injuries happen. It's not something you wish for," Drouin said. "But there's ice time there to be grabbed, and we've got to be ready as a team for the playoffs."

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