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Defensemen injuries force Lightning to play short-handed

Tampa Bay had to play one forward short Thursday night to qualify for an emergency roster exemption.
Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak and defenseman Ryan McDonagh are both banged up, missing Thursday's game at Dallas.
Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak and defenseman Ryan McDonagh are both banged up, missing Thursday's game at Dallas. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Mar. 25
Updated Mar. 26

Injuries to two key Lightning defensemen and Tampa Bay’s salary cap crunch led to the Lightning playing one skater short in their road game against the Stars on Thursday night.

With Ryan McDonagh and Erik Cernak out, the team promoted defensemen Luke Schenn and Andreas Borgman from the taxi squad. But because the Lightning have no cap space and couldn’t create any since neither McDonagh nor Cernak’s injuries are serious enough to qualify for injured reserve, Tampa Bay had to play one man down to qualify for an emergency exemption to call up two players and play above the salary cap.

The Lightning went with just 11 forwards to go with their six defensemen. Forward Ross Colton remained on the taxi squad, and other forwards filled in Colton’s spot on the fourth line.

The roster manipulation came one day after the Lightning traded forward Alexander Volkov to the Anaheim Ducks. General manager Julien BriseBois said the team wanted to gain cap relief and create some roster flexibility. If short-term injuries pile up, the Lightning won’t be forced to dress just five defensemen.

McDonagh’s status is very much up in the air. Coach Jon Cooper said he hoped McDonagh would return by the end of the current road trip (Saturday), but that seems optimistic. Cernak has been banged up, hobbling off the ice after taking a shot to his left knee in Tuesday’s win, then returning for the ensuing penalty kill. Both take a beating as two of the team’s leaders in blocked shots.

Volkov’s Cup contributions

Alexander Volkov battles for position against the Stars' Alexander Radulov during Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final.
Alexander Volkov battles for position against the Stars' Alexander Radulov during Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. [ MARKO DITKUN | Special to the Times ]

Even though Volkov played fewer than 10 minutes during the Lightning’s Stanley Cup run last year in the bubble, Cooper said he always will remember Volkov’s contributions in the decisive Game 6 win against Dallas.

Volkov drew a first-period tripping penalty that led to the Lightning’s first power play and their first goal 25 seconds later by Brayden Point.

“The kid spent 64 days in the bubble, worked his tail off and earned his right to play in Game 6, which definitely at the time was probably the biggest game of his life,” Cooper said. “...We needed everybody involved, even guys that didn’t get a ton of minutes during the bubble. And Volky gave it to us.

“He’ll always live in Lightning history as a contributor to a Stanley Cup.”

Hat trick in a flash

Another Lightning depth piece, forward Gemel Smith, netted a hat trick for the team’s AHL affiliate Syracuse Crunch on Wednesday night, scoring all three goals within the first nine minutes of the Crunch’s 6-3 win over Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

Smith actually scored his three goals in a stretch of 5:17 of clock time, making it the second-fastest hat trick in Syracuse history under its Lightning affiliation. He has six points in his three games since joining the Crunch two weeks after spending the season shuffling between the Lightning’s active roster and the taxi squad.

Stephens nearing return

Fourth-line center Mitchell Stephens continues to improve from a lower leg injury that has shelved him since the fourth game of the season, and Cooper said he likely will be upgraded to day-to-day status next week.

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

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