TAMPA — Erik Cernak’s blue-collar work can sometimes go overlooked, but the Lightning defenseman’s extended absence won’t be.
Cernak is out indefinitely after leaving Tuesday’s overtime loss to the Hurricanes after doing one of the things he does best, blocking shots. He took a shot to the left arm late in the first period and didn’t return due to what the team called an upper-body injury.
In addition to his responsible, punishing defensive game, Cernak is the Lightning’s top right-shot defenseman. He has come into his own as an offensive player and for the first two weeks of the season led the team in shots on goal.
With the 24-year-old out indefinitely, the Lightning will be without one of their top shutdown defensemen, penalty-killers and minute-eaters.
“There’s concern,” coach Jon Cooper said Tuesday night. “It’s definitely not going to be day-to-day. He’s a huge part of our D-corps, and he has been for a long time. We hope it’s not too long. But he is going to miss a few games here, there’s no question.”
Cernak leads the Lightning in hits (36), ranks third in blocked shots (17) and shots on goal (29), and is fourth in average ice time among skaters (20:15),
“He’s obviously a big minutes-muncher for us,” center Brayden Point said. “He blocks a ton of shots, works hard, plays physical. Just kind of does it all, really, so we’ve got to manage the puck with him out of the lineup and get guys to step up back there.”
Cernak’s absence also cuts into the Lightning’s right-shot defense depth. His exit Tuesday forced Jan Rutta (23:48) and Cal Foote (16:18) into season-high ice-time totals and impromptu work on the penalty kill alongside Ryan McDonagh.
Left-shot defensemen McDonagh, Victor Hedman and Mikhail Sergachev already log more than 22 minutes per game. Sergachev, who just completed a two-game suspension for an illegal check to the head, will return for Saturday’s game against the Panthers and can play the right side.
The Lightning also are expected to get veteran right-shot defenseman Zach Bogosian back in the next few games. He has been out since being hit in the foot with a shot in the season opener Oct. 12.
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Still, Cernak has become such a valuable player for the Lightning that he won’t be easy to replace. Tampa Bay defensemen take their share of punishment standing in the way of shots. Last week against the Capitals, Cernak stepped in front of two Alex Ovechkin slap shots in rapid succession on a penalty kill.
“We miss (Cernak) a lot,” forward Pat Maroon said. “You know what he does on the (penalty kill). Him and McDonagh are just warriors back there, the way they compete, the way they put their face in front of shots.
“(Cernak has) got some high-end skill. He can score, he can create offense, he jumps up in the play. And he’s a big body back there that plays physical. He’s hard to play against. He’s matching against top lines, so obviously he’s a huge presence that we’re going to miss.”
Cernak missed seven games from late March into early May last season, and the Lightning lost five of them.
“Just another opportunity for a young kid or a player that’s out of the lineup to step in,” Maroon said. “We’re going to have players that go down throughout the year … so it’s got to be the next-man mentality.
“We can’t really feel sorry for ourselves. We’ve just got to go out there and compete, because we’re going to go through some ups and downs this year.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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