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This far into the playoffs, injuries test Lightning’s depth

Managing injuries is a challenge for any team in the postseason. It’s getting difficult for the Lightning.
An referee attempts to break up a fight between Lightning left wing Brandon Hagel, right, and Rangers center Barclay Goodrow as defenseman Braden Schneider looks on in Game 1 of the conference final.
An referee attempts to break up a fight between Lightning left wing Brandon Hagel, right, and Rangers center Barclay Goodrow as defenseman Braden Schneider looks on in Game 1 of the conference final. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jun. 2|Updated Jun. 2

NEW YORK — Every playoff team’s depth is tested throughout the postseason. The deeper a team gets in its chase for the Stanley Cup, the more players deal with physical ailments to stay on the ice or return to it.

And as the Lightning try to rebound from their disappointing Game 1 loss to the Rangers in the Eastern Conference final Wednesday, their lineup is starting to look thin.

Forward Brandon Hagel gutted out 13:35 of ice time in Tampa Bay’s 6-2 loss but was clearly still dealing with a left leg injury he suffered blocking a shot in Game 2 of the second-round sweep of the Panthers.

Hagel finished the Panthers series but wasn’t a full participant at any practice during the Lightning’s nine-day break that followed. He also didn’t participate in Thursday’s practice at Madison Square Garden.

The beating the Lightning took from blocking shots during the Panthers series is a part of their DNA. It’s one reason they won back-to-back Stanley Cups. Players are trying to push pain aside for the benefit of the team.

There’s a deliberate decision the Lightning have to make about injuries every game moving forward. One example: If Hagel is not going to heal after nine days off, it’s more about managing the injury.

“It’s a communication with the player and medical (staff),” coach Jon Cooper said. “Everybody’s got to be on the same page in that regard. But we’re not going to put a player out there that we’re putting him in harm’s way … (or) putting the team in harm’s way. So if he’s not able to get the job done, then he won’t be out there. But we’ve felt that (Hagel is) in a position to do his job, and that’s why he’s playing.”

Lightning head coach Jon Cooper huddles up with his team on the ice during practice at Madison Square Garden on Thursday.
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper huddles up with his team on the ice during practice at Madison Square Garden on Thursday. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Center Brayden Point is still out with an apparent right leg/hip injury suffered when he crashed into the boards while pursuing the puck in Game 7 against the Maple Leafs in the first round. Point is trying get himself to a level where he’s able to help the Lightning in this series.

He has skated on back-to-back days, and that shows a level of urgency. And the Lightning need him facing Game 2 against the Rangers on Friday.

When Point skated after Thursday’s practice, he looked much more confident on the ice, making more fast, hard cuts. That came a day after Cooper tempered expectations that Point would return this postseason.

Thursday’s practice lineup included forwards Riley Nash and Cole Koepke on the third line.

Up until Wednesday’s loss, the Lightning had thrived in an 11 forward/seven defensemen lineup. Cooper said Thursday he had no plans to go to 12 forwards soon.

“(Game 1) was a high-intensity game in a great environment,” Cooper said. “And now we’re in it, and now we’ve got that game under our belt. There should be no excuses here. We just have to show up and bring that energy we had after the first 90 seconds of the game and through the first and much of the second (periods).

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“We’ve now dipped our toes in the water here in Game 1. We better jump into the deep end here in Game 2.”

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.

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