NASHVILLE — Erik Cernak was just getting his skates warmed up during Saturday’s Stadium Series game when he was taken out of play.
The defenseman was clearing the puck from below the goal line behind the Lightning net 1:19 into the outdoor game when the Predators’ Ryan Johansen hit him high, his skates slightly off the ice. Johansen’s right elbow connected with Cernak’s head, and Cernak briefly stayed down on the ice.
The hit and scrum it precipitated set a physical tone for the rest of the Lightning’s 3-2 win at Nissan Stadium, which featured a pair of fights and numerous dustups.
“Guys don’t go into games sitting here saying, ‘We’re going to get in a fight,’ or things like that,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “First of all, this is a physical team. We played Nashville eight times last year. We know how their team is built, and we can hold our own, as well.
“When a play happens the way it did on the first shift, that’s going to turn the tide of the game. You can’t let teams see you flinch, and they don’t flinch.”
Cernak left the ice but came back out for his second shift 1:31 later. Following the shift, he walked to the locker room and did not return until the 9:55 mark. He skated seven shifts in all in the period, totaling 5:39 time on ice, but missed the remainder of the game.
Johansen initially received a five-minute major penalty, which carries a game misconduct, for an illegal check to the head. But after a replay review, the penalty was reduced to a two-minute minor, allowing Johansen to remain in the game.
Clearly displeased, the Lightning repeatedly went after Johansen. Cernak headed straight for the Nashville forward after returning to the ice in the first period, and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare fought Johansen right off a faceoff early in the second. Bellemare and Johansen received matching five-minute fighting majors.
“It goes to show who your team is,” Lightning forward Pat Maroon said. “When a teammate gets hit like that, you have to answer the bell, and this has been our team the past two years. We’ve found a way to stick up for each other.”
Without Cernak, the Lightning had to get by with just five defensemen for the final two periods. Cooper commended his blue line for the way it stepped up short a player. Victor Hedman played a team-high 29:05, while Ryan McDonagh logged 26:06.
The veterans weren’t the only ones who saw some additional action. Second-year player Cal Foote has seen an increase in ice time this year due to injuries among Lightning defensemen, and Saturday’s game was no exception.
Foote played 11:18 and had the primary assist on Steven Stamkos’ winning goal. Moments after batting the puck down at the blue line to keep it in the offensive zone, Foote sent a quick pass across the ice to Stamkos, whose one-timer from the right faceoff circle extended the Lightning lead to 3-1 with 8:29 remaining.
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“We’re not sure we’re going to need that goal,” Cooper said, “but (Foote) makes a hell of a play to Stammer to set up the game-winner.”
The game was Cernak’s third since returning from a lower-body injury Feb. 15 against the Devils. He had missed the previous nine games during what was his third major injury stint of the season.
Cooper said after the game that Cernak would be further evaluated as the team takes off Sunday before returning to practice Monday in preparation for Tuesday’s game against the Senators.
“I think he’s going to be okay,” Cooper said.
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