TAMPA — Nobody has spent more games behind an NHL bench than Lightning associate coach Rick Bowness.
Tonight will be No. 2,171.
Yet Bowness has never seen anything like Thursday, when Tampa Bay had three centers — Tyler Johnson, Vladislav Namestnikov and Cedric Paquette — helped off the ice with injuries in the same game.
"That was very rare," Bowness said. "They all looked bad."
Turns out, the lower-body injuries looked worse than they are, the Lightning said Friday, listing Johnson, Namestnikov and Paquette as day-to-day. The meaning of "day-to-day" is wide-ranging in NHL terms, especially this time of year, so there's no specific timetable for when the three forwards can play again. It would be surprising to see any of them in tonight's huge game against the Atlantic Division rival Panthers, who are six points out of the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. Tampa Bay is four points out.
But if any team is capable of surviving this latest string of injuries, it's the Lightning (31-26-9). Sure, it is now short at center, which not too long ago was its deepest position. Captain Steven Stamkos (knee surgery) is still out, and veterans Brian Boyle (Maple Leafs) and Valtteri Filppula (Flyers) were traded at last week's deadline. But Tampa Bay has experience dealing with the deflating moments of teammates going down this season.
"One thing we've all been around is injuries," Bowness said.
The latest example is how the Lightning responded in Thursday's 4-1 victory over the Western Conference-leading Wild. Down to nine forwards for half the game, Tampa Bay pulled off one of the most impressive wins of its season.
"They didn't let the injuries stop them from competing and playing the game," Bowness said. "But is it tough to overcome? Absolutely."
The biggest blow is losing Johnson, though it wouldn't be surprising if he were the first one to return. Johnson is the No. 1 center since Stamkos' injury in mid November and the Lightning's second-leading scorer (19 goals). He anchors the Triplets line, which, with Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat, has been the team's best lately.
But the Lightning is fortunate to have a strong fallback in rookie Brayden Point, who is expected to take Johnson's place with Kucherov and Palat. Point has impressed with his hockey IQ, his work ethic and his consistency all season. Alex Killorn, who has played on lines with Johnson and Point, sees similar characteristics.
"Similar in size. Unbelievable skaters, both of them," Killorn said.
Losing Namestnikov and Paquette is tough, no question, both for the bottom-six forwards and the penalty kill. Rookie Yanni Gourde filled in at center between Killorn and Jonathan Drouin at Friday's practice. The Lightning can also insert center Greg McKegg, who was claimed from the Panthers last week, on one of the lower lines.
Expect Matt Peca, impressive in a callup from AHL Syracuse earlier this season, to be recalled for tonight's game. That could mean five rookies in the lineup.
The timing of these injuries is bad. The Lightning is just four points out of a playoff spot with 16 games to go. And this is a telling stretch, with Tampa Bay hosting the Panthers, then having back-to-back road games against the Rangers and Senators before home games against the Maple Leafs and Capitals.
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But the mood was upbeat around the dressing room Friday, with players not believing these injuries are season-ending.
"With a lot of them, the way they kind of happened, you think they're pretty serious because of twisted knees," Killorn said. "Luckily, none of them are too bad. Guys are going to have to step up, like we've done before."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.