TAMPA — Everything has gone so smoothly for the Lightning this season.
It has the league's best record. It boasts the league's most All-Stars (four).
You thought its biggest obstacle in the second half of the season would be complacency.
Then came Thursday. The Lightning's 5-1 loss to the Flames was meaningless compared to the sobering sight of All-Star defenseman Victor Hedman having to be helped into the dressing room early in the second period.
Hedman suffered a lower-body injury after his left knee buckled in a knee-to-knee collision with Flames wing Garnet Hathaway. Hedman didn't return to the game.
Coach Jon Cooper said the injury's severity wouldn't be known until Hedman had tests today. But this one looked bad.
"Obviously, when a guy can't really put a weight on his leg and doesn't come back, especially (Hedman), who battles through a lot of stuff, it didn't look very good," captain Steven Stamkos said. "Obviously we're hoping and praying for the best news. We'll have to wait and see."
Of all the Lightning All-Stars — Stamkos, Andrei Vasilevskiy and Nikita Kucherov are the others — Hedman and Vasilevskiy are the ones the team could ill afford to lose for an extended period. Tampa Bay (31-10-3) has plenty of depth and scoring up front to withstand the loss of Stamkos, and it has on a few occasions when he has been out hurt. But the Lightning doesn't have the horses on the blue line.
Hedman, a Norris Trophy finalist last season, is one of about a half-dozen bona fide No. 1 defensemen in the league. He plays nearly half the game, averaging 26 minutes, and is a key cog on the power play and the penalty kill.
"Often as 'Heddy' goes, we go," Cooper said.
As Stamkos said, you can't replace him.
"We have some elite players on this team, but on the back end, he's our rock back there," Cooper said. "He can help dictate the play of how we're doing things. It's not like we haven't lost him before, but the big worry would be if it's long term."
Hedman did miss a month early in the 2014-15 season and the Lightning survived, going 12-5-1 in that stretch. The team went to the Stanley Cup final that season.
This team also has Cup aspirations, and any long-term injury to Hedman would put a big dent in them.
With Hedman out, Anton Stralman and rookie Mikhail Sergachev were elevated to the top pair. Braydon Coburn, a healthy scratch Saturday against the Senators, was elevated into a top-four role with Jake Dotchin, who had struggled with Hedman lately. Sergachev took Hedman's spot on the top power-play unit and handled it well.
You could make the argument that even before Hedman's injury, the Lightning needed to address the blue line by the Feb. 26 trade deadline. If the injury is serious, that need is magnified tenfold.
The Lightning opens a five-day bye week today, so Hedman will have time to recover before the team's next game, next Thursday against Vegas.
The Lightning tied the Flames in the first minute of the second period on Brayden Point's goal. But once Hedman went down, things went downhill for Tampa Bay. It gave up several odd-man rushes, which led to point-blank chances for the Flames and a long night for Vasilevskiy. "Bad bounces, bad breaks," Vasilevskiy said.
By the midway point of the third, many in the sellout crowd of 19,092 at Amalie Arena were heading for the exits.
"We kind of lost a little life when Heddy went down there," Stamkos said. "The guys were obviously thinking about him. Maybe it sucked a little momentum because the guys are worried with what's going on with Heddy."
Hedman had been playing his best hockey of the season. He entered Thursday plus-22 since Dec. 1 and had been a dynamic force at both ends of the ice, with 16 points in his past 11 games. On Wednesday he was named to his second All-Star team.
"A big loss for us," Vasilevskiy said of the injury.
The only question: How long?
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.
First Period—1, Calgary, Ferland 19 (Monahan, Gaudreau), 0:29. Penalties—Killorn, TB, Major (fighting), 0:38; Brouwer, CGY, Major (fighting), 0:38.
Second Period—2, Tampa Bay, Point 17 (Palat, Johnson), 0:31. 3, Calgary, Gaudreau 14 (Hamilton, Ferland), 16:48. 4, Calgary, Bennett 6 (Jankowski, Brodie), 18:43 (pp). Penalties—Bennett, CGY, (holding), 1:31; Giordano, CGY, Penalty Shot (interference on breakaway (penalty shot)), 5:15; Hathaway, CGY, (high sticking), 14:15; Johnson, TB, (holding), 17:21.
Third Period—5, Calgary, Jankowski 8 (Hathaway), 2:19. 6, Calgary, Tkachuk 11 (Brouwer), 8:34. Penalties—Ferland, CGY, (tripping), 3:56. Shots on Goal—Calgary 7-11-6—24. Tampa Bay 16-10-8—34. Power-play opportunities—Calgary 1 of 1; Tampa Bay 0 of 3. Goalies—Calgary, Smith 19-13-3 (34 shots-33 saves). Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 27-7-2 (24-19).