WINNIPEG—When D Anton Stralman got hurt, the Lightning decided it was time to take a look at Erik Cernak. The 21-year-old had a good training camp, so let's see what he can do.
Then Stralman was out longer than expected and Cernak kept playing well. At one point shortly after he was recalled, Cernak dipped to the third pairing, but he quickly rose back up to play alongside D Ryan McDonagh. Originally told to pack a bag for a week, Cernak is one month and 16 games into his NHL career.
"He has really opened our eyes and he has added depth to this organization and our team," coach Jon Cooper said.
But Stralman returned to the lineup for Sunday's game in Winnipeg. So what does that mean for Cernak?
Well, in the immediate sense, it meant Cernak's first NHL healthy scratch. But that's not a permanent status. F Matheiu Joseph is injured day-to-day with an undisclosed "lower-body" injury. Putting him on IR gives the Lightning at least a few games to figure out the next move.
Cooper made it clear the Lightning aren't moving on from Cernak. He explicitly said "Cernak is going to play on this Canadian trip" (Winnipeg, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton in seven days).
"I think he's developing at a faster pace than anyone thought," Cooper said. "I think when he left camp, I'm sure he sat there and didn't think he was going to play any games in the NHL and now he's at just under 20. What he's done, he's left a great impression on us. He's still with us."
Stralman credited Cernak for achieving something difficult. A player's first NHL experience is often brief, and a whirlwind before he gets his bearings. Cernak found his footing quickly and has played significant time.
The question is what happens when Joseph returns to the lineup, or the Lightning are fully healthy, because they'll have one more player than roster spots.
More on Stralman's return: Anton Stralman returns to play Winnipeg