TAMPA — Early indications are that the Lightning dodged a major injury to forward Steven Stamkos, but the sight of the team’s captain struggling to the bench and down the tunnel late in the first period of Saturday night’s game against the Blackhawks at Amalie Arena definitely was a scare.
Three games earlier, top defenseman Victor Hedman hobbled off the ice in Carolina after sliding into the end boards and holding his lower back. He returned Saturday, but the Lightning’s time at full strength was short. Stamkos didn’t return, leaving the Lightning to play down a forward for the final two periods.
The Lightning overcame a sluggish start to pull out a 3-1 victory over the Blackhawks late, with Brayden Point scoring his second goal of the night with 59.7 seconds remaining to give the Lightning a one-goal lead. Brandon Hagel added an empty-net goal with two seconds remaining.
“In the end, it’s a 1-1 game with under five minutes to go and you win in regulation,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “That’s got to be a step forward. So I liked how we pushed to the end. I thought it’d be nice to be able to do that the whole game. We didn’t, but when it counted we did, and so take those two points and move on.”
As for Stamkos — who suffered an apparent left leg injury, his leg giving way as he got back to his feet after falling to the ice while fighting for the puck near the boards — Cooper offered a promising prognosis.
“I think he’s going to be OK,” Cooper said. “We just kept him out for precaution. We’ll check him out tomorrow, but hopefully he’ll be OK.”
Stamkos was seen in the locker room after the game walking regularly, without a limp.
Given his injury history — a broken tibia in 2013, two core muscle surgeries in 2020 and a meniscus tear in his other right knee in 2016 that required another procedure before the 2021 Stanley Cup run — the sight of the 33-year-old suddenly grabbing his left knee, then flexing it while skating to the bench was striking.
“It’s tough,” Point said. “He’s obviously such a huge part of our team not only on the ice but off the ice.”
After Point’s first goal opened the scoring and gave the team’s top-line center a new career high with his 42nd goal of the season, former Lightning forward Taylor Raddysh tied the game at 5:23 of the third.
After Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak and Chicago forward Jujhar Khaira dropped their gloves and drew five-minute fighting majors with 3:29 left, Tampa Bay put on the pressure, closing out with a 9-2 shot-attempt advantage while keeping the puck in its offensive zone.
In the final minute, Nikita Kucherov drew attention at the right circle and found Point in the high slot. Point whipped a shot between the circles past goaltender Petr Mrazek for his 43rd goal of the season.
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“It was working earlier in the game, and Kuch is so good at drawing guys to him,” Point said. “So he’s able to make guys come to him and then find me with a bit of space.”
Point’s ninth multigoal game of the season came after he scored a game-tying goal Thursday to help the Lightning salvage a point in an overtime loss to Vegas.
“(He’s scored) a lot of big ones for us,” Cooper said. “He’s been the straw that’s stirred the drink many a nights.”
Cooper said he thought Hagel moving up to the top line with Point and Kucherov in Stamkos’ absence helped the Lighting get out of their slow start.
“I thought they really kind of took over a lot of that game, especially at the end,” Cooper said. “But Point is a big part of that, and he and Kuch have such a such chemistry and they’re just a dynamic group together.”
Saturday’s win was another positive turn for the Lightning, who had lost nine of their last 12. Tampa Bay plays the back end of games on consecutive nights Sunday at home against Winnipeg before traveling to New Jersey for two games.
“We had a lot of good looks in the final two minutes and finally got one in,” Hedman said. “So the guys were determined. We want to win games, we want to get points. ... We just try to climb our way up and keep winning hockey games. We’ve got some real tough games coming up here in the next week.”
Lightning goaltender Brian Elliott finished with 22 saves on 23 shots, earning his first win in his last five starts.
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