TAMPA — Veteran defenseman Anton Stralman had never been part of anything like it.
Stralman had to help three Lightning centers — Tyler Johnson, Vladislav Namestnikov and Cedric Paquette — off the ice during Thursday's 4-1 win over the Wild at Amalie Arena. All suffered lower-body injuries, and though coach Jon Cooper didn't have an official update after the game, he said, "It doesn't sound encouraging for any of them."
"That was crazy," Stralman said. "But you move on."
And the Lightning impressively did in a commanding victory over the Western Conference-leading Wild. Cooper called it the team's best character win of the season.
Don't look now, but Tampa Bay is on a 9-2-3 run, and it is four points out of the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
"It was gritty, it was gutty," Cooper said of the win. "We played to win a hockey game, and that's what we did."
At one point, the Lightning (31-26-9) — which used an 11-forward, seven-defensemen alignment — was down to eight forwards. It played half the game with nine. With captain Steven Stamkos (knee surgery) still out and veteran centers Brian Boyle and Valtteri Filppula traded at last week's deadline, rookie Brayden Point is now the No. 1 center.
"You just try to play for each other," Point said.
Johnson's injury would be the biggest blow. The former All-Star has been playing some of his best hockey of the season.
Namestnikov got hurt first, early in the second period, clutching his left leg after getting tangled up with Wild forward Zach Parise along the boards. He was seen limping, though without crutches, after the game.
Johnson went down five minutes later, hit into the boards by wing Nino Niederreiter. Johnson didn't put any weight on his left leg as he was helped off.
Paquette went down in the third, his left ankle/leg crumpling awkwardly.
"Seeing guys go down puts pressure on other guys," said defenseman Victor Hedman, who tied a career high with his 13th goal. "It's never fun to see."
Nikita Kucherov had two goals, giving him 30 on the season. And goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy was spectacular again with 32 saves, improving to 4-0-1 since taking over for Ben Bishop, traded last week, as the new No. 1.
"He's really holding down the fort," Stralman said.
Though Stamkos continues to make progress from his November surgery, there's no date for his return. Next week is the four-month mark in his four- to six-month expected recovery. Expect a center or two to potentially get recalled from AHL Syracuse, such as Matthew Peca or Cory Conacher.
Cooper didn't want to jump to conclusions on the statuses of Johnson, Namestnikov or Paquette. But with Tampa Bay facing another team its chasing in the playoff race Saturday, the Panthers, their status is in doubt in the short term.
"If we got one of them for Saturday, that would be a blessing," Cooper said. "So we'll see."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.
First—1, TB, Kucherov 29 (Hedman, Palat), 6:53 (pp). 2, TB, Hedman 13 (Dotchin, Drouin), 11:01. Penalties—Suter, MIN, (trip), 6:46; Witkowski, TB, (rough), 7:32.
Second—3, TB, Sustr 2 (Kucherov, Johnson), 4:37. Penalties—Zucker, MIN, (hook), 1:08; Point, TB, (trip), 19:13.
Third—4, MIN, Scandella 4 (Brodin, Koivu), 16:02. 5, TB, Kucherov 30 (Gourde), 18:51. Penalties—Dotchin, TB, (holding), 9:06; Prosser, MIN, (interference), 13:03; Garrison, TB, (high sticking), 16:02. SOG—MIN 9-6-18—33. TB 7-13-9—29. PP opps—MIN 0 of 4; TB 1 of 3. Goalies—MIN, Dubnyk 35-14-3 (28 shots-25 saves). TB, Vasilevskiy 15-13-6 (33-32).