As Lightning are struck with another key injury, opportunity arises

Gabriel Fortier could make his NHL debut Tuesday in St. Louis for an injured Mathieu Joseph.
Lightning forward Gabriel Fortier had a hat trick during an exhibition game against the Carolina Hurricanes in October in Tampa.
Lightning forward Gabriel Fortier had a hat trick during an exhibition game against the Carolina Hurricanes in October in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Nov. 29, 2021|Updated Nov. 29, 2021

ST. LOUIS — Gabriel Fortier woke up from a nap late Sunday afternoon in Syracuse to a phone call informing him to pack his bags and join the Lightning in St. Louis for his first NHL call-up.

The 21-year-old forward didn’t arrive until Monday morning, having to spend Sunday in Charlotte after missing his connection due to a delayed flight in Syracuse. Hours later, he was participating in his first regular-season NHL practice, inserted into the Lightning’s second forward line and getting penalty-kill reps.

With forward Mathieu Joseph doubtful for Tuesday’s game against the Blues, Fortier could make his NHL debut. Joseph left Sunday’s game in Minnesota after colliding with Wild forward Ryan Hartman and didn’t skate in Monday’s practice at Enterprise Center.

“You always think a little bit about it,” Fortier said when asked whether his call-up was a surprise. “But I was just playing in Syracuse. I was I was having a good start, and I was just focusing on that. So it’s nice to get the call-up, but I wasn’t really thinking about that. I was just thinking about my game in Syracuse.”

Joseph’s injury gives the Lightning three sidelined top-six forwards — including Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point — and will offer another of the organization’s prospects an accelerated opportunity.

“No matter what, even regardless of if all the guys were healthy, you need depth,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “It’s the only way it works. And so, you know, it’s a kind of that Catch-22. You have some prominent players out, but it’s also giving opportunity to other guys, so when these guys come back they’re in a better spot. We’ve just got to keep trying to munch some points.”

It’s unclear how long Joseph could miss (there is also a chance the Lightning could get back defenseman Erik Cernak Tuesday), but in Fortier the team filled Joseph’s spot with someone who plays a similar quick-paced, north/south game and can contribute on the penalty kill. Fortier, who had four goals and seven assists in 17 games with the Crunch, said he’s tried to model his game after Joseph’s.

Fortier made an impression during training camp and in the preseason, including a hat trick against Carolina. In the mold of some of his former Syracuse teammates now with the Lightning — Ross Colton, Boris Katchouk, Taylor Raddysh and Alex Barre-Boulet — he showed gradual growth in the AHL.

“He’s a kid that’s gotten better every year,” Cooper said. “His speed is evident. He doesn’t shortchange it. He doesn’t cheat you on shifts. And I thought as that training camp went on, he was one of the most noticeable players in camp, especially in his last exhibition game.

“You don’t base everything on training camp, but you want to see them go down and keep developing and play well in the American League, and that’s what he did. He deserves it.”

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Placing a rookie with no NHL experience on one of the top two forward lines may seem strange for a Lightning team with so many veterans, but Barre-Boulet is already playing on the top line in Point’s absence. Katchouk and Raddysh have seen their playing time increase and are getting more time on the penalty kill.

After shuffling personnel earlier in the season, the Lightning’s bottom two lines have developed chemistry that should keep them together. The veteran line of Pat Maroon, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare and Corey Perry plays a heavy game down low and is starting to make good on its offensive chances. And the “kid line” of Katchouk, Colton and Raddysh is starting to jell as a tone-setting line similar to last year’s Yanni Gourde line.

“They do a lot of good things for our team,” Maroon said. “They create a lot. They play the right way, they play simple, and they’re really, really hard to play against. And I think that’s a really good sign moving forward when you have a line like that.

“ ... It’s been really fun to see that energy from the young guys, because as you win, you need a new life. You need someone new to come in and kind of fill that role again and give you another energy, give more life in the room, and I think they do that for us.”

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