TAMPA — Much like last season, the Lightning’s short-term goal again becomes staying in the playoff hunt until they get Nikita Kucherov back.
They won’t have to survive an entire regular season without their star forward, but they will have to get through at least late December without him.
The team announced Wednesday that Kucherov had surgery for an unspecified lower-body injury Tuesday and is expected to need eight to 10 weeks of recovery time.
This was the first time the Lightning provided a definitive timetable for Kucherov’s return since he left in the third period of an overtime win against the Capitals on Oct. 16 in Washington. He bumped into Washington forward Garnet Hathaway as both players chased the puck near the side boards in the Capitals zone, then spun and crouched over in pain, holding his groin area before slowly skating off the ice.
Kucherov missed last year’s regular season after offseason hip surgery. The Lightning shot out of the gate without him, winning 18 of their first 24 games. Entering tonight’s game against the Coyotes at Amalie Arena, they are meandering at 3-3-1 and have lost three of their four games since he was injured. They have yet to score a power-play goal in 13 chances without him.
“When adversity hits, which has hit us a little bit early in the season, you’ve just got to lean back to what got us (there) and what’s made us successful,” coach Jon Cooper said earlier this week. “It’s a hard league to catch up in, so you don’t want to fall behind in the regular season. And for us, that’s why our urgency has to kick in here.
“You’re not winning the (Stanley) Cup now, but you’ve got to put yourself in position, and that’s making the playoffs, and you can really down your hopes if you don’t get points early.”
The Lightning were optimistic that this Kucherov injury wasn’t as serious as last season’s, they expected he would need surgery.
The Lightning have not said whether the injury is related to last season’s, which began with a groin strain Kucherov suffered during the first round of the 2019-20 Stanley Cup run, then progressed into a torn labrum. With Kucherov out for the 56-game regular season, the Lightning focused on securing a playoff berth in the hope he would be able to return for the postseason.
The Lightning finished third in the realigned Central Division. The kind of surgery Kucherov had typically requires a six-month recovery, but he returned in five. As Tampa Bay won a second straight Cup, he became only the third player with consecutive 30-point postseasons, joining Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.
But the 2020-21 Lightning had one of the most impactful third lines in the game and the depth to score across all four lines. This season’s squad is more of a work in progress, rebuilding the third line and relying on younger players to fill the bottom lines.
With the Lightning scoring just five goals in their first three games without Kucherov, Cooper shuffled his lineup Tuesday to lean more on his proven stars in a convincing 5-1 win over the Penguins.
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Centering a revamped line between Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn, Brayden Point scored his third goal in his past four games, and his line logged the most ice time. A natural center who has played on the wing for the past several years, Steven Stamkos centered a line flanked by Ondrej Palat and Mathieu Joseph.
The Lightning played with five defensemen for most of the night, with Victor Hedman logging a team-high 26:17. The Lightning leaned far less on their third line in even-strength situations, as third-line center Ross Colton played just 10:56 of 5-on-5, and Corey Perry saw just 10:55 of even-strength time.
“You’re trying to find what’s working and putting guys in position to succeed, and that’s what we did,” Cooper said after the game. “(Stamkos has) pretty much played center his whole life, so it’s easy to put him back there. He just hasn’t played it in a while.
“Point and Palat have played together for quite some time. We thought about this lineup for a bit, and we played pretty well (Tuesday) night. But we need some of these big guys to get on the board.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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