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Lightning suddenly stretched thin by injuries

With the status of Stamkos and Cirelli uncertain, Tampa Bay will have to lean on other players to step up.
Lightning center Anthony Cirelli (71) and Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad (5) fight for the puck during the third period Thursday in Sunrise.
Lightning center Anthony Cirelli (71) and Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad (5) fight for the puck during the third period Thursday in Sunrise. [ MARTA LAVANDIER | AP ]
Published Feb. 12
Updated Feb. 13

SUNRISE — The Lightning won a Stanley Cup largely without captain Steven Stamkos, and they’ve raced to one of the best starts in franchise history without Nikita Kucherov.

But in a matter of hours Thursday, the injuries started to pile up.

Stamkos, who entered Thursday leading the team in scoring, was scratched before a 5-2 loss to the Panthers with a lower-body injury; he was called day to day. And in the third period, center Anthony Cirelli skated off favoring his right arm and did not return.

Stamkos then landed on the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol list Friday. He posted on Twitter that a false positive coronavirus test was suspected.

The Lightning were already without Kucherov, last year’s leading scorer, for at least the regular season as he recovers from hip surgery. Losing Stamkos, who has a team-high seven goals and is tied for second with 14 points, and top two-way forward Cirelli for any amount of time could put the Lightning in a bind.

The Lightning compensated for Stamkos’ absence Thursday by going to an 11-forward, seven-defensemen setup. Before leaving the game, Cirelli filled Stamkos’ spot on the top power-play unit.

Asked about the status of the two players after Friday’s practice at BB&T Center — hours before the news of Stamkos going on the COVID-19 list broke — coach Jon Cooper said he didn’t have an update.

Stamkos is unable to practice, travel or play in games while on the list.

“(Today) we will make a list of guys who can play (tonight against the Panthers), and we’ll put a team together from that,” Cooper said. “But the big thing for us is, whether these guys were in or out, we can’t sit down and kick the can because we’re missing some important players in our team. It’s a team sport, and we’ve got to rally around this. Some guys that probably haven’t seen many minutes are going to see them and we’ll see where we’re at, if in fact these guys can’t go.”

Cooper said he still considered Stamkos day to day. On the Lightning Power Lunch show on the team’s iHeartRadio channel, assistant coach Derek Lalonde said Stamkos was hurt Tuesday at Nashville and might have been able to play Thursday if the game had been a playoff game.

That Stamkos had two core muscle surgeries over the past year makes any lower-body injury a concern.

Cooper said the team wouldn’t know the severity of Cirelli’s injury until today. Cirelli shook his right shoulder and skated to the bench and into the dressing room after colliding with Panthers center Aleksander Barkov while chasing a puck in the corner.

“We hope it’s not long term,” Cooper said. “It’s a tough time to see our guys going down right now, but I don’t want to speculate on anything yet, so we’ll have to wait and see.”

The Panthers outskated the Lightning for much of the game, utilizing their speed to stretch the ice and maintain puck possession. As the Lightning tried to come back from a late three-goal deficit, the absences of Stamkos and Cirelli became clear.

They are the Lightning’s most dependable players on faceoffs, and when Tampa Bay pulled goalie Andrei Vasileskiy in favor of an extra attacker, it struggled to maintain possession.

“To lose ‘Stammer,’ who is a strong right-handed faceoff guy, and Tony on the other side, it does put you thin in the circle,” Cooper said. “Faceoffs turn into three forwards instead of one centerman. We’ve obviously got to do a better job.”

Center Brayden Point lost seven of 10 faceoffs in the game. Third-line center Yanni Gourde was 2-for-11. As a team, the Lightning won only 40 percent of their faceoffs.

In addition to Stamkos and Cirelli, the Lightning practiced without defensemen Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh, and forward Blake Coleman, who sat out for maintenance days, the team said.

“It was a different type of practice,” Cooper said of the missing players. “But I think guys were looking at the numbers and the potential for who might play (tonight) understanding that roles are getting bigger. And so, yeah, there was some jump (Friday).”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.

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