NEW YORK — When Lightning players found out Friday that captain Steven Stamkos would be out 1-3 months with a blood clot in his right arm, they thought — more so, hoped — it was an April Fool's Day joke.
"Huge shock," veteran C Brian Boyle said. "It came out of nowhere. It was unbelievable, we couldn't believe it."
"Terrible," RW Nikita Kucherov said.
"Pretty tough shoes to fill," C Tyler Johnson said.
But the Lightning, which still needs one point to clinch a playoff spot after Monday's 5-2 loss to the Islanders, seems mentally ready for the unenviable challenge of entering the playoffs next week without two of its top players, Stamkos and D Anton Stralman (fractured left leg). And coach Jon Cooper was encouraged by Saturday's first game without the two, a 3-1 win over the Devils that he dubbed their best structured game of the year.
"They're two very, very big parts of our team," Johnson said. "But if everyone steps up and helps just a little bit more, we have the skill and depth and character that we can at least try to fill that in."
It won't be easy. G Ben Bishop said they need to come together and play a simple, team game. Cooper suggested they'll have to protect their net even more, knowing they won't have that extra goal Stamkos usually scores (team-high 36 this season).
Stamkos had successful vascular surgery Monday in Tampa. Several teammates visited him Sunday morning before their flight. Boyle said Stamkos was in "good spirits" and very "even-keeled."
"If you want to glass half-full it, I guess you can sit here and say, 'Let's win one for the Gipper,' we've all got to bind together, it's going to push us to new heights," Cooper said. "But in reality they're two of our best players, you can't replace their talent. It's no doubt a blow, but one thing we can't do is sit here and say, 'Our two big guns are out and now our season is over.' We've come too far to have anything like try and get in our mind-set.
"So it stings, it hurts, it's clearly not ideal. But we've got to be pros. And I think if there's anything we can look to and say, 'You know what, let's not make Stammer's last game a 3-0 loss to Montreal. Let's not make Stralman's last game being hurt killing a penalty. Let's make their last game go out on their own terms and playing this year, because we're not in spot we are today without those guys.' That's got to be our mind-set. Let's get them back. Let's not make this the end of their season."
Lining up: The post-Stamkos lines had the Triplets (LW Ondrej Palat, Johnson and Kucherov) back together. Other lines: Valtteri Filppula-Cedric Paquette-Ryan Callahan; Alex Killorn-Vladislav Namestnikov-J.T. Brown; and Mike Blunden-Boyle-Erik Condra. RW Jonathan Marchessault and D Slater Koekkoek were scratched again.
"I kind of like our balance all the way through," Cooper said. "You can't sit here and say we're top-heavy in one part, we're a four-line team."
Minor move: Second-round pick Mitchell Stephens signed to a three-year entry level deal; he can report to AHL Syracuse.
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.