LAS VEGAS — The feel-good start to the Lightning season took a definite dark and scary turn Friday in Las Vegas.
Victor Hedman is injured.
Those four words are about the worst four words the Lightning can hear. Hedman, the defending Norris Trophy winner as the league's top defenseman, might just be the best pound-for-pound player on the team. And if he's out for any significant time, it would be a major blow to the Lightning.
For now, however, the Lightning isn't saying much about Hedman's injury.
The good news, perhaps, is that Hedman did not suffer a concussion after being on the receiving end of a thunderous check by Vegas' Ryan Reaves in Tampa Bay's 3-2 victory against the Golden Knights. That was the initial fear, especially because Hedman has a history of concussions.
But coach Jon Cooper ruled out a concussion, saying that "never came up'' after the game. He would not reveal what the injury is or how long Hedman will be out. He did say Hedman was unlikely to play Saturday in Arizona, though he sounded somewhat optimistic when he added, "I don't think this is going to be anything really long term.''
The Lightning better hope not.
"You can't say enough things that he does for this team,'' defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. "We're pretty well aware of the mark he has made on this group and how important he is to this team.''
That became evident when the Lightning had to play without Hedman on Friday.
"You never know how much you miss a guy until you don't have him,'' Cooper said.
Hedman's injury occurred in the second period when he used his backhand to clear the puck out of his end. It appeared to be a clean hit by Reaves, who delivered a shoulder check to Hedman's shoulder. The check sent Hedman flying into the boards, where he landed awkwardly on his head and shoulder.
The Lightning had to scramble the rest of the game but managed to hold on without him, in part because the rest of the defensive corps, especially McDonagh, stepped up.
"I think we did a pretty good job,'' defenseman Dan Girardi said. "Any time your Norris winner is out, it's obviously not ideal for the team. But last year he was out for a little bit, and I thought we did pretty good in his absence.''
Aside from loading more minutes onto the backs of defensemen such as McDonagh and Anton Stralman, the Lightning will call upon 2012 first-round draft pick Slater Koekkoek, who has yet to play this season, to fill minutes in Hedman's absence.
Not that anyone can really fill Hedman's minutes.
"He's a Norris Trophy winner, the best defenseman in the league, in our eyes,'' captain Steven Stamkos said. "Hopefully, it's not too bad.''
Hedman's injury, as well as one to Ondrej Palat when he blocked a shot, overshadowed yet another victory for the Lightning, which is 7-1-1 on the season and 3-0-1 on this five-game western swing. And the win came because Cooper took some advice from his captain.
Following Wednesday's 1-0 victory in Colorado, where Stamkos set up Nikita Kucherov for the game's lone goal, Stamkos joked with the media that he should once again play on a line with Kucherov. Well, maybe he wasn't really joking.
After Tampa Bay and Vegas traded early goals (Tyler Johnson for the Lightning; Shea Theodore for the Golden Knights), Cooper mixed up his lines and put Kucherov and Stamkos together with Brayden Point. The trio combined for a spectacular tick-tac-toe goal from Point that gave the Lightning a 2-1 lead in the first.
"Obviously, the chemistry is there,'' Stamkos said. "We know what each other is going to do with the puck. … The chemistry is definitely still there.''
The Lightning extended that lead to 3-1 early in the second when J.T. Miller deflected a Mikhail Sergachev shot from the point. Sergachev was stepping in for Hedman on the first power-play unit.
And despite getting off just one third-period shot, the Lightning held on for the victory because of goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy and a defense that banded together to make up for Hedman's absence.
That's what it will take for the Lightning to survive and thrive if Hedman is out too long.
Golden Knights 1-0-1–2
First Period—1, Tampa Bay, Johnson 4, 3:05. 2, Vegas, Theodore 1 (Carpenter), 5:31. 3, Tampa Bay, Point 6 (Stamkos, Kucherov), 16:38. Penalties—Paquette, TB, (interference), 10:21; Point, TB, (holding), 14:02.
Second Period—4, Tampa Bay, J.Miller 3 (Killorn, Sergachev), 4:47 (pp). Penalties—Reaves, VGK, (holding), 3:08; Vegas bench, served by Reaves (delay of game), 4:47; Coburn, TB, (tripping), 8:20.
Third Period—5, Vegas, Karlsson 3 (Tuch), 1:47 (pp). Penalties—Girardi, TB, (tripping), 1:16. Shots on Goal—Tampa Bay 6-16-1—23. Vegas 12-6-13—31. Power-play opportunities—Tampa Bay 1 of 2; Vegas 1 of 4. Goalies—Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 5-1-1 (31 shots-29 saves). Vegas, Fleury 4-4-1 (23-20).