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Lightning defense corps continues to cope with injuries

Tampa Bay got Erik Cernak back, but Jan Rutta was sidelined with a lower-body injury.
Lightning defenseman Jan Rutta was scratched Friday due to a lower-body injury.
Lightning defenseman Jan Rutta was scratched Friday due to a lower-body injury. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Mar. 6
Updated Mar. 6

Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak rejoined the lineup for Friday’s game in Chicago following a one-game absence, but Tampa Bay’s defense corps still played short-handed due to another injury.

Veteran defenseman Jan Rutta, who assisted on a shorthanded goal that sparked the Thursday’s 3-2 overtime win over the Blackhawks, was scratched due to a lower-body injury. For the second straight game, the Lightning had to play with just six healthy defensemen on the active roster. Rutta is considered day to day, the team announced.

Following the Lightning’s 4-3 shootout loss to Chicago Friday, coach Jon Cooper said he expected Rutta to return soon.

“We think he’ll be back soon,” Cooper said. “But you play a night game, you wake up the next morning and it wasn’t wasn’t feeling great. So we got other guys can step in. It’s kind of the same philosophy we had with (Cernak), so it’s better to rest them and let them heal for a bit.”

With Cernak out Thursday with an upper-body injury, Rutta played a season-high 20:27. The team’s top three defensemen — Victor Hedman (27:16), Ryan McDonagh (26:14) and Mikhail Sergachev (25:47) — all logged more time than normal with Cernak out.

Rutta saw more time on the penalty kill Thursday and created a critical shorthanded opportunity that led to Anthony Cirelli’s early third-period goal.

“It was big for us,” Rutta said. “Obviously, we wanted to just kill the penalty and take some momentum, and scoring a shorty like that, that was huge and helped us, for sure.”

Lightning coach Jon Cooper was cautiously optimistic after the win that Cernak would return Friday.

As for Rutta, he went into the boards awkwardly during the third period of Thursday’s game and was in obvious pain on the ice for several moments before skating off under his own power.

Depending too much on Vasilevskiy?

Though the Lightning went into Friday’s game owning the league’s longest active win streak, they realized after Thursday’s victory that they’ve been relying too much on goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy to bail them out.

Vasilevkiy’s franchise-record scoreless streak ended Thursday at 228 minutes, 9 seconds as he allowed two goals in the second period. While Vasilevskiy turned in another fabulous performance, following his three straight shutouts with a 35-save effort, Lightning skaters knew they had to do more to help him.

After the team’s veterans rallied them during the second intermission, the Lightning scored two quick goals at the start of the third and eventually won in overtime on Alex Killorn’s deflection with 0.1 seconds remaining.

“We’re certainly accustomed to winning here, and we want to win every night,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “But we’ve let it slide a little bit, I’d say the past five periods before this third period (Thursday), where we were relying on maybe special teams or our goalie a little too much to win some hockey games.”

Vasilevskiy, who had Friday off as the Lightning played the second of games on consecutive nights, has kept Tampa Bay in many contests when the team wasn’t as its best.

“We want to keep winning games, and Vasy is a big part of our team and, you know, sometimes — not too often — you have to rely on him to keep us in games and when we’re not our best,” defenseman Victor Hedman said. “And he’s been tremendous this whole season. We’ve obviously got some work to do in our game.”

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