TAMPA — The Lightning is in a potentially make-or-break week when it comes to its playoff hopes, facing a tough slate that includes back-to-back road games and a matchup with the Maple Leafs. And Tampa Bay may have to go through it with six rookies in its lineup.
Centers Tyler Johnson, Cedric Paquette and Vladislav Namestnikov missed Saturday's 3-2 win against the Panthers due to lower-body injuries. And though each was considered day-to-day, coach Jon Cooper said he wasn't sure when they would return. That means recent callups from AHL Syracuse Yanni Gourde, Adam Erne and Matt Peca will get more playing time. Rookies Brayden Point and Jake Dotchin have been regulars for a while. C Gabriel Dumont, 26, is considered a rookie.
But the Lightning isn't worried. "The guys' spirits are high in there," Cooper said before the game. "They're going into every single game thinking they can win, regardless of who is in the lineup."
The callups have been impressive this season, proving capable of stepping in. That's a credit to first-year Crunch coach Benoit Groulx and to the hungry players, who have brought much-needed edge and, as Cooper calls it, "youthful exuberance."
"Guys are trying to prove themselves, and that can be a good thing," Erne said. "Obviously, you want some (veteran) guys to lead the way, but having young guys isn't necessarily a bad thing."
Erne, who made his NHL debut in January, is a fixture in front of the net and on the second power-play unit. Gourde started Saturday on the second line with Jonathan Drouin and got his first NHL goal short-handed to tie the score at 2 in the second period. You can pinpoint the Lightning's resurgence with the return of center Point from injury in late January and the callup of defenseman Dotchin, who has balanced out the blue line and held his own in the top pair with All-Star Victor Hedman.
Gourde said it helps that the Crunch and Lightning play with a similar "fast mentality." Erne said Groulx runs intense practices and is very demanding and "brings the best out of (us)." And that's translating to Tampa.
"That's why every guy that comes from Syracuse, they want to bring their 'A' game," Gourde said. "They want to show the organization they're ready to be at this level. That's what we're trying to achieve here."
And they are.
C Steven Stamkos (knee surgery) joined Saturday's optional morning skate but has yet to fully participate in a team practice. Friday marks the four-month mark in Stamkos' expected four- to six-month recovery (right after the Lightning hosts Stamkos' hometown Leafs on Thursday). … C Brayden Point took Tyler Johnson's spot on the top line. … RW Jonathan Drouin centered the second line and looked good, having played that position some in the AHL and in juniors. … C Greg McKegg, claimed off waivers from the Panthers a few weeks ago, said it was weird to play against them Saturday. "It's definitely still a fresh move," he said. … F J.T. Brown returned to the lineup. D Luke Witkowski played forward again.
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Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.