EDMONTON — The Lightning have been rotating a number of defensemen in their lineup throughout the playoffs.
Some nights, coach Jon Cooper has elected to go with seven defensemen; others he has gone the traditional route with six.
For Jan Rutta, he wasn’t sure if he was going to get his name called, but the 30-year-old was thrown into the fire for Game 2 of the Stanley Cup final against the Stars on Monday after the Lightning lost the series opener. Despite not having played in 47 days, he didn’t look out of place.
“I felt better as the game went on,” Rutta said after Game 2. “It was unfortunate, but there’s nothing you can do about it. You just try to stay positive and take it day-by-day and try to get out there as soon as possible.”
He was solid enough that Cooper had him back in the lineup Wednesday, a 5-2 Lightning win for a 2-1 series lead.
Before Monday, Rutta had last played on Aug. 5 against the Bruins in the round-robin portion of the postseason for seeding, but an injury forced him out of the lineup after that.
When he was healthy enough to play again, the Lightning were going with a seven-defensemen rotation, and Luke Schenn and Zach Bogosian in the lineup. So he had to wait.
Rutta just tried to focus on getting healthy for when he got his name called.
“I watched a lot of hockey and tried to hang out with the boys as much as I could, so I had some things to think about instead of the injury,” Rutta said.
After the Lightning’s disappointing Game 1 loss, Cooper chose to take Schenn and Bogosian out of the lineup and dress Rutta.
In Game 2, he played a key role on the penalty kill and had 15:29 of ice time, primarily paired with Victor Hedman.
In Game 3, he assisted on Steven Stamkos' first-period goal and played 11:33.
“Rutts and I have played a lot before, but it’s tough to come into the final if you haven’t played in a long time, but he’s made it look easy,” Hedman said. “We have good chemistry, we can really read off of each other, and I’m really happy with the way he’s played.”
On the Stamkos goal, Rutta made a crisp pass to Hedman, who fed speeding Stamkos, who made a nice move around Stars defenseman Esa Lindell and Stars goaltender Anton Khudobin with a hard wrist shot into the top corner.
Rutta played mistake-free hockey.
“You see a couple of the goals there, it’s his gap that starts the transition the other way,” Lightning defenseman Ryan McDonagh said.
“It’s about being in the right spots and being aggressive, and letting your defensive structure and reads create your offense, and he’s done a tremendous job coming in here and playing to his strengths and doing what’s asked of him.”
Coaches want cohesiveness, chemistry and consistency from their lineup.
Cooper has been forced to juggle his lineup throughout the playoffs, and he has done a masterful job, particularly on the blue line, pushing all the right buttons.
When he felt the Lightning needed stronger transition and speed from his defensemen, he had no problem putting in Rutta over Schenn and Bogosian and going back to the traditional 12 forward, six-defensemen lineup.
“We’re slowly getting healthy, and we’ve had guys that have contributed with us in the past and contributed currently,” Cooper said.
"We talked to our guys at the beginning of camp. It doesn’t take 20 guys to win the Stanley Cup, it’s going to take all 28. There are guys who have played in this series, and guys who have come out depending on how the game goes, how our team is going … our health. There are so many factors that go into it. But you need everyone to buy in.
“It’s what’s been great about this team. Sure, everyone gets disappointed when they don’t get to play, but in the end, everybody is really excited when we win, and we’re doing everything we can as a staff and as a group to put the best team on the ice to win that night, and guys understand.”