TAMPA — Coach Jon Cooper knew star wing Nikita Kucherov was feeling a little off Thursday morning but thought he'd likely be in the lineup against Detroit.
"Not really concerned about at all," Cooper said.
That changed in a hurry Thursday night. The Lightning found out an hour or so before game time that Kucherov was too sick to play, stripping the injury-plagued team of its leading scorer and MVP. Tampa Bay had to play a man short.
"Clearly a little bit of a shock to the system," Cooper said. "But the guys took it as a challenge."
And boy did the Lightning respond, pulling off its fourth straight come-from-behind win, a 5-3 victory over the Red Wings in front of a sellout crowd of 19,092 at Amalie Arena. It helped Tampa Bay keep pace with Boston in the playoff race, remaining three points out of the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference with a game in hand and six to go in the regular season.
But it was how the Lightning won that was so unexpected. J.T. Brown scored his first goal since Nov. 14 to tie the score at 1 late in the first period. And defenseman Andrej Sustr scored just his eighth goal in 268 NHL games. Fittingly, Sustr's selected goal song, Oops! … I Did It Again by Britney Spears, played, the bench erupting.
Sustr said it was the first song that came to mind and was glad teammates had a "giggle" about it.
"When he set (the goal song) up, I didn't think we'd have the pleasure of listening to it," wing Alex Killorn said. "It was hilarious."
Killorn scored, too, his power-play shot from the left circle trickling in the crease before the Red Wings' Danny DeKeyser inadvertently knocked in the puck.
This wasn't by far the Lightning's best game. Detroit, eliminated from playoff contention, controlled play for portions, with goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy delivering a strong performance.
But Tampa Bay, once again, found a way to win, getting the kind of secondary scoring that has been elusive for it this season. Jonathan Drouin got the eventual winner late in the second, his 21st of the season and third goal in the past two games. Rookie Yanni Gourde added his third career goal in the third.
"When you're missing those (injured) guys, goals have got to come from somewhere," Cooper said.
So with no captain Steven Stamkos, no Tyler Johnson and no Kucherov — who has a team-high 38 goals — scoring came from unlikely heroes Sustr, Gourde and Brown.
Cooper said he hoped Kucherov could be ready by Saturday's game against Montreal, helped by an off day today. Cooper said Kucherov has the same bug that has been going through the team this season, also hitting defensemen Victor Hedman and Jason Garrison, even Cooper himself.
"Once you're hit, you're out," Cooper said.
But the Lightning wasn't out of this game, and it still isn't out of the playoff race.
"How many times has 'Kuch' bailed us out and been the guy for us?" Cooper said. "Well now let's be the guy for Kuch."
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The Lightning did it again.
First Period—1, Detroit, Nielsen 15 (Helm), 4:22. 2, Tampa Bay, Brown 3 (Dumont), 18:58. Penalties—Mantha, DET, Major (fighting), 3:47; Witkowski, TB, Major (fighting), 3:47; Ouellet, DET, Major (fighting), 5:41; Brown, TB, Major (fighting), 5:41.
Second Period—3, Tampa Bay, Sustr 3 (Palat), 2:22. 4, Detroit, Dekeyser 4 (Tatar, Zetterberg), 12:46. 5, Tampa Bay, Killorn 18, 16:13 (pp). 6, Tampa Bay, Drouin 21 (Hedman, Point), 18:04 (pp). Penalties—Abdelkader, DET, (roughing), 8:31; Dotchin, TB, (roughing), 8:31; Larkin, DET, (roughing), 15:47; Dekeyser, DET, (cross checking), 17:42; Namestnikov, TB, (slashing), 20:00.
Third Period—7, Tampa Bay, Gourde 3 (Palat, Sustr), 6:03. 8, Detroit, Green 13 (Nielsen, Larkin), 8:18 (pp). Penalties—Mckegg, TB, (holding stick), 7:11. Shots on Goal—Detroit 9-10-15—34. Tampa Bay 9-12-11—32. Power-play opportunities—Detroit 1 of 2; Tampa Bay 2 of 2. Goalies—Detroit, Mrazek 17-21-8 (31 shots-26 saves). Tampa Bay, Vasilevskiy 20-16-6 (34-31).