TAMPA — When it comes to the Lightning’s playoff fortunes, I promise you this:
The ugly results of the past week will not matter, and blowing off home ice will not matter. And finishing with three consecutive losses while getting outscored 14-3 does not mean the Lightning have lost either momentum or mojo.
But when it comes to Tampa Bay’s odds of surviving the first-round series against Florida, there is one worry from the past week that matters a great deal:
The crowd in the trainer’s room.
Because the NHL allows teams to be coy about injuries, and because the Lightning are more cutesy than most, it’s hard to know whether coach Jon Cooper was just giving a few banged-up guys a breather at the end of the regular season or whether there are legitimate injuries to be concerned about.
We know Nikita Kucherov has not played a game in more than seven months after hip surgery, and Steven Stamkos hasn’t played in five weeks due to a lower-body injury. That’s troubling enough. But having Victor Hedman, Ondrej Palat, Ryan McDonagh and Barclay Goodrow all out of the lineup in recent days without an explanation is a tad bothersome.
Cooper did not want to talk about injuries after Monday night’s regular season finale and, the last we heard, Hedman, Palat and McDonagh were all day-to-day injuries. Goodrow was listed as indefinite.
While it seems likely Hedman, Palat and McDonagh will be on the ice for the playoff opener, there is still reason to be concerned. Particularly with Hedman.
When he was held out of Saturday night’s game against Florida — the first game he had missed in more than a year — Chris Johnston of Hockey Night in Canada reported Hedman had been playing with an injury for more than a month and would need offseason surgery.
The concern was an awkward fall into the boards against Columbus on March 30 when Hedman had to be helped off the ice by Stamkos. While he returned later that night and has carried a normal workload since then, Hedman has not been as dominant as we’ve come to expect.
The defenseman had been averaging nearly a point per game (0.97) before that night but saw his production drop by more than one-third (0.60) since then. His plus/minus rating was a positive-15 going into that game and has been a minus-10 since then. Plus/minus is no longer in vogue with advanced analytics, but that’s still a dramatic swing in fortune.
And while the Lightning were able to take their foot off the gas in April/May when it was clear they were going to make the playoffs, it’s worth noting they’ve been a pedestrian 12-9-1 since that March 30 game.
Is any of this relevant going into the playoffs? We don’t know, and that’s the point.
We don’t know how badly Hedman is dinged up. We don’t know if Kucherov’s rehab from surgery is completed. We don’t know the extent of the Stamkos injury.
The Lightning have been aiming for a Kucherov return in the playoffs ever since his hip surgery on Dec. 29, but that timetable has always had leeway. Some players (Boston’s David Pastrnak, for instance) have returned from hip surgery in the same four-to-five month window that Kucherov has been looking at. Others have taken closer to six months.
Cooper said Monday night that everyone would have a better grip on the injury situation as the week goes on, but knowing the Lightning, that could mean we’ll find out when the puck drops.
If you recall, a week before the Lightning left for the postseason bubble in 2020, Stamkos said he was hopeful of playing in a couple of the round-robin games that preceded the playoffs. He didn’t. In fact, he would miss the next 21 games before his inspirational appearance in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final against Dallas seven weeks later.
On the other hand, Hedman twisted his right ankle in the final round-robin game against Philadelphia and disappeared for three days. There was little word about whether he would be ready for Game 1 of the first round against Columbus, but he showed up for pregame warmups, played more than 57 minutes in the five-overtime game and eventually won the Conn Smythe Trophy.
With everyone in the lineup, the Lightning could look as imposing as last season when they went 16-6 in the postseason on the way to the Stanley Cup title.
And I have little doubt Hedman will be in uniform for Game 1 against Florida. For that matter, McDonagh and Palat will probably return, too. It’s a harder call on Kucherov and Stamkos, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see either of them.
The harder question is what toll these injuries will have taken on players and, ultimately, on Tampa Bay’s hopes.
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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