Lightning dodge a bullet in loss to Blue Jackets

Victor Hedman left for five minutes before coming back to finish the game. With a rash of recent injuries to defensemen, Tampa Bay can’t afford to lose him.
Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman (77) stayed on the ice after going awkwardly into the boards during the second period of Tampa Bay's 3-1 loss to Columbus Tuesday at Amalie Arena. Blue Jackets defenseman Mikko Lehtonen, left, looks on.
Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman (77) stayed on the ice after going awkwardly into the boards during the second period of Tampa Bay's 3-1 loss to Columbus Tuesday at Amalie Arena. Blue Jackets defenseman Mikko Lehtonen, left, looks on. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published March 31, 2021|Updated March 31, 2021

TAMPA — Amalie Arena went silent during the second period of Tuesday’s loss to the Blue Jackets when Lightning fans, players and coaches noticed one of the league’s most prominent defensemen lying face-down on the ice.

Victor Hedman went awkwardly into the boards near the Columbus goal after Blue Jackets defenseman Mikko Lehtonen took out his skates while diving to try to block a Hedman shot. The Conn Smythe-winning defenseman struggled to get up under his own power and had to be helped off the ice by trainer Tom Mulligan and captain Steven Stamkos.

After returning to to the bench, Hedman took a brief skate at the next stoppage, then took his next shift exactly 4:25 after he was taken off the ice.

Though the whole incident took only about five minutes of real time, it felt much longer. That’s how important Hedman is to this Lightning squad.

“First and foremost, hockey aside, you just hope he’s okay,” center Brayden Point said. “And then to see him battle back was a huge relief for our team. ... (He’s) a leading scorer, a top-minutes guy, one of our best players. (It was) great to see him back.”

The scare brought one thing to the forefront: aside from goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, Hedman might be the player the Lightning can least afford to lose right now.

Defenseman Ryan McDonagh (who missed his fourth game Tuesday with a lower-body injury) has helped take some of the load off Hedman since he was acquired from the Rangers in 2018.

Hedman went from a career-high average time on ice of 25:51 that season to 22:46 in 2018-19. His time went up slightly to 24:04 in 2019-20 and has since increased to 25:28 through 35 games this year.

In addition to McDonagh’s absence, defensemen Erik Cernak (three games; lower-body) and Jan Rutta (left Tuesday’s game in the second period with a lower-body injury) have been plagued by injuries of late.

Had Hedman not returned Tuesday, the Lightning would have been forced to play with four defensemen: rookie Cal Foote, Andreas Borgman, Luke Schenn and Mikhail Sergachev. Instead, the team dodged a bullet.

“We have some quality defensemen here, but we did lose some guys who are important to our team in (Kevin) Shattenkirk, (Zach) Bogosian and (Braydon) Coburn, and you’re replacing them with guys with less experience,” coach Jon Cooper said. “The fact that guys are hurt right now is getting these guys experience, and that’s a good thing.”

The Lightning have felt the effects of the injury pileup more acutely, Cooper said Tuesday, because of the schedule changes this season. Even in a shortened 56-game season, the coach said, there were more breaks between games than they’ve had recently. But it’s no different than what every other team in the league is going through, he said.

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“There’s a lot more condensed, and so when you do get hurt, guys probably miss more games than they normally would,” Cooper said. “But injuries happen in a game, every team goes through them. It’s not just us, it’s everybody. Your depth gets tested, and right now we’re getting tested.”

No team can compensate for the loss of Hedman. The former Norris Trophy winner leads all NHL defensemen with a team-high 33 points (six goals, 27 assists).

Hedman also leads the Lightning in shots (92), power-play points (19) and average time on ice per game (25:28, more than three minutes above Sergachev’s 22:07, the next-highest). On Tuesday, Hedman posted a career-high 10 shots on goal, surpassing his Dec. 21, 2017 record of nine.

“No doubt you don’t want to see anybody go down ever, especially somebody of Victor’s (caliber) and what he means to our team,” Cooper said Tuesday night. “It ended up being a scare, and thank goodness it was just that.”

McDonagh skated in the full practice Wednesday and is “close” to returning, Cooper said. Cernak made a brief appearance before his team went out on the ice but left before Cooper blew the whistle to start drills. Rutta did not make an appearance.

“Cernak and Rutta are steps back, unfortunately,” Cooper said. “I can’t make a prognosis, but we were hoping they’d be a bit further along than they are.”

Up next

vs. Blue Jackets, 7 p.m. Thursday

Amalie Arena, Tampa

TV/radio: Bally Sports Sun; radio: 970 WFLA

Contact Mari Faiello at Follow @faiello_mari.

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