The Lightning's 3-2 shootout victory over the Islanders on Tuesday was a milestone of sorts. It was the 17th game played without Steven Stamkos.
That is the same number of games the Lightning played with Stamkos before he was lost indefinitely to a broken right leg on Nov. 11 at Boston.
"We're not as good a team without him," coach Jon Cooper said. "That is a bald fact."
But Cooper said his players developed a chip on their shoulder when media types suggested their season was doomed without their All-Star center. And with a combination of stellar goaltending and an amped-up commitment to team defense that has helped equalize the expected, and dramatic, drop in offense, Tampa Bay has kept its head above water, going 8-6-3.
That pales to the 12-5-0 record the team had with Stamkos. But Tampa Bay (20-11-3) is third in the Atlantic Division, just five points behind the first-place Bruins, and fourth in the East, well-entrenched in a playoff spot.
"We've grown up without (Stamkos)," Cooper said. "We found out we can survive without him. Maybe we aren't so bad after all."
Stamkos was the biggest name to go down, but at one point the Lightning's injury list reached nine and included rugged left wing Ryan Malone and defenseman Eric Brewer, Radko Gudas and Victor Hedman.
Add a four-loss western road trip that happened just as the emotions of losing Stamkos peaked, and 8-6-3 doesn't look too bad.
As Cooper said, "It's not just a Stammer-less team, it's a lot of guys-less team."
Stamkos' 14 goals in 17 games averaged to .8. With Stamkos the Lightning averaged 3.1 goals. Without him, it has averaged 2.1.
A big part of the downturn has to do with the power play, which was 12-for-65 (18.5 percent) with Stamkos but 6-for-52 (11.5 percent) without him.
"Stammer is a threat," Cooper said. "People scout Stammer. Now they don't have to."
A bigger problem? Losing power-play faceoffs. The power play is 6-for-67 in its past 22 games while winning a mediocre 45.8 percent of draws. That means valuable time is wasted retrieving the puck and regaining the offensive zone.
With goaltender Ben Bishop playing lights-out and the team playing defense as a five-man unit, the Lightning had cut its goals-against to an average 2.5 from last season's 3.1.
In 17 games without Stamkos, Tampa Bay is even stingier, allowing just 2.1 goals per game.
Much of that is thanks to Bishop, who has allowed two or fewer goals in 21 of 26 starts. But the Lightning has mostly eliminated cheating on defense for the sake of offense and the odd-man rushes that plagued it in the past.
"When Stammer was here, I think we thought we could bail ourselves out of games," Cooper said. "Now we're forced to understand we can't give up more than two goals a game or its going to be really hard for us to win. I don't know if we had that thought process in our heads with Stammer."
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Between building from within the organization and callups to deal with the injuries, Tampa Bay's roster has eight rookies and 13 players with fewer than 100 NHL games.
"We're going through growing pains right now we did not anticipate," Cooper said.
"But if there is going to be a silver lining, I can't help but think we've accelerated the growth of our team."
"We're a good team without Stammer," Cooper said. "Maybe when Stammer comes back, we can be a great team."