BRANDON —Lightning players and coaches couldn't say enough about how daunting it will be to face the Flyers.
"They're better than last year," defenseman Pavel Kubina said.
"One of the best teams one-on-one in the league," coach Guy Boucher said.
So, it is bad timing, to say the least, Tampa Bay enters tonight's game at the St. Pete Times Forum without two of its top defensemen: Mattias Ohlund and Victor Hedman.
Ohlund has not played in the regular season because of arthroscopic surgeries on both knees. Hedman, who averages a team-high 23:17 of ice time, will miss his second game with an upper-body injury sustained in Friday's overtime victory over the Blackhawks.
Left wing Ryan Malone also is out with an upper-body injury. But considering the Flyers top the league with 56 goals, have perhaps the game's top player in Claude Giroux and perhaps the hottest in Jaromir Jagr, the challenge for the blue line is the big story.
How big? Not even Boucher sugarcoated it.
"They can make you look bad," he said. "It puts a lot of stress on our defensemen."
"It's an opportunity for everybody else to play in different situations," Kubina said. "You just have to do the best you can."
At Tuesday's practice at the Ice Sports Forum, Matt Gilroy took Hedman's spot on the No. 1 pairing with Eric Brewer. Hedman had replaced Ohlund as Brewer's partner at season's start.
Kubina was with Marc-Andre Bergeron. Brett Clark was with Bruno Gervais.
The coaches drilled the group hard, especially on closing the gap with opposing puck carriers to limit their speed through the neutral zone.
"If you're missing those top guys, it demands a perfect focus defensively," Boucher said.
At the same time, he added, "We have to be smart about what we demand. Not many guys are part of the top two pair of defensemen. So, when you ask guys who are not used to playing that role consistently, you're asking too much. We have to be understanding about what these people are living. We have to make their jobs easier."
That means the forwards have to commit to defense as a five-man unit, something they have not done consistently, especially on the road.
Giroux was second in the league entering Tuesday with 19 points and tied for second with nine goals. And with Jagr having six goals and five assists in a seven-game points streak, a "pack mentality," as Boucher calls it, is critical.
"The full team has to pick up the slack, not just the defense," Clark said. "It has to be forwards, defense, everyone. As a group we just have to play solid, try to make simple plays. If we can do that, we can cut down on the chances against us."
"You have to play within the system," Bergeron said. "You have to play your game. Whoever is out there has to do what he's good at. It just has to be good enough. At the end of the day we're all NHL players and you have to find a way to do the job. It's as simple as that."
Damian Cristodero can be reached at email@example.com.
Lightning vs. Flyers
When/where: 7:30; St. Pete Times Forum, Tampa
TV/radio: Versus; 970-AM
Key stats: The Lightning entered Tuesday with the league's No. 1 home power play at 33 percent (4 of 12). … C Steven Stamkos was tied for the league lead with 10 goals. … The Flyers are 4-1-0 on the road. … Philadelphia's power play is in a 2-for-28 slump. … The Flyers' 64 times shorthanded entered Tuesday third-most in the league.