The Lightning moved a step closer to playing with their normal lineup with defenseman Erik Cernak’s return in Thursday’s 6-4 win against the Blue Jackets.
He had been sidelined with a lower-body injury since March 23, missing seven games. On Thursday, he started alongside Victor Hedman.
Cernak had 22:10 of ice time and two hits.
“We talked about being tougher to play against, and he’s one of the toughest of our group,” defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “Just in your face, finishing every check, blocking a ton of shots and really helping us not get stuck in our zone a lot.
“For a first game in a while, I thought he looked like his old self pretty well, so a great step for him.”
Luke Schenn, who played while Cernak was out, wasn’t in the lineup. Rookie Ben Thomas skated in his third straight game.
On the pregame Bally Sports Sun broadcast, forward Blake Coleman said Cernak was “a big piece to have back” in the lineup.
With Cernak’s return, Tampa Bay had its top penalty kill unit back at full capacity, Cernak rejoining McDonagh and forwards Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman.
Cernak has one goal and nine assists through 29 games. He ranks third among Tampa Bay’s defensemen for assists behind Hedman (30) and Mikhail Sergachev (20). Cernak has blocked 35 shots, fourth highest on the team, and has 59 hits.
“He does so much more than just what he does defensively,” center Brayden Point said of Cernak before the game in Columbus. “Obviously physical presence, a guy that will stand up for his teammates, blocks a ton of shots and he’s got that kind of nastiness that sometimes our team misses.”
• • •
Sign up for Lightning Strikes, a weekly newsletter from Bolts beat writer Eduardo A. Encina that brings you closer to the ice.