ELMONT, N.Y. — The Lightning want to be at their best when the playoffs begin in less than two weeks. And a big part of that is being healthy.
Playing the back end of their final back-to-back games of the regular season, the Lightning already were shorthanded Thursday night against the Islanders. Forwards Anthony Cirelli and Brandon Hagel didn’t dress (lower-body injuries), and defenseman Erik Cernak also didn’t play. All three are day-to-day.
But then forward Tanner Jeannot, the trade-deadline acquisition whose added physicality has helped the Lightning find the mean streak they’ll need in the postseason, needed to be helped off the ice and to the locker room after his right leg bent awkwardly underneath him in the second period.
Forward Pat Maroon, another big part of Tampa Bay’s muscle, then disappeared down the tunnel favoring his left arm after hitting the boards, leaving the Lightning bench short of healthy bodies.
More concerning than the 6-1 loss — and that they were outscored 12-4 against the Rangers and Islanders in the back-to-back games — is the rash of injuries with three games remaining in the regular season.
Jeannot’s initial prognosis seemed bleak, with coach Jon Cooper calling the injury “worrisome.”
“That’s a tough one, because he’s a big part of our team and he was really coming into his own,” Cooper said. “And to see that happen, those are tough ones to watch. So definitely the guys’ mindset was a little off after that happened.”
The Lightning’s defeat, combined with Toronto’s overtime loss to Boston, gave the Maple Leafs home-ice advantage in the teams’ first-round playoff meeting.
“It all starts with the level of desperation and wanting to play the right way,” defenseman Mikhail Sergachev said of the Lightning’s two losses in New York. “We have to do it, and we have to do it now.”
The absence of Cirelli, Hagel and Cernak had the Lightning playing out of sorts before the puck dropped. They had just 11 healthy forwards, and seventh defenseman Haydn Fleury played wing to fill out the forward lines.
And playing an Islanders team that is one of three vying for the Eastern Conference’s two wild-card spots, Tampa Bay couldn’t match its opponent’s urgency.
“For whatever reason, especially in the last month, when we’re playing teams fighting for their playoff lives — and we’ve been pretty comfortable in the position that we’ve been in for most of the season — we’re just not matching the desperation and the execution,” captain Steven Stamkos said.
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“It hasn’t been ideal losing some of the players that we’ve lost in the course of the past couple of games, but still no excuse.”
The Lightning (45-28-6) were outshot 13-3 in the first period, and despite Tampa Bay having just one 5-on-5 shot on goal in the first 20 minutes, backup goaltender Brian Elliott held his own.
But the second period unraveled on the Lightning, starting when Islanders defenseman Adam Pelech’s seeing-eye shot from the point opened the scoring 3:46 in.
Jeannot then got tangled with Islanders defenseman Scott Mayfield against the side wall and his right leg twisted underneath his weight, with Mayfield on top of him as he fell to the ice.
After Jeannot’s exit, the Lightning yielded two goals over 49 seconds, and for the second straight night they were chasing a 3-0 deficit.
“Both games, we tiptoed our way in,” Cooper said. “And you can sit here and say it was 0-0 (Thursday) after one. But the second period was a byproduct of what happened in the first. It’s tough when guys are going in there and they’re not ready to play or wanting to play the right way, and this is the result.”
Ultimately, Cooper said the injuries didn’t impact their play.
“This is the National Hockey League,” he said. “So when you’re in this league, you have to do the right things and play the right way. And if you don’t, you risk being embarrassed. And we’ve been embarrassed two nights in a row.”
The loss spoiled a milestone night for Stamkos, who joined Vincent Lecavalier as the only players in franchise history to play 1,000 games with the team. Lightning players entered UBS Arena wearing “Seen Stamkos” T-shirts, an homage to the marketing campaign in Tampa Bay before the Lightning drafted Stamkos first overall in 2008. The only difference was the K in Stamkos had a No. 1 attached to represent his 1,000 games.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.
Forward Alex Killorn was fined $5,000 by the Department of Player Safety for slashing Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin in the second period of Wednesday’s loss. Rangers defenseman Adam Fox also received a $5,000 fine for slashing Lightning forward Corey Perry. Both fines are the maximum allowed by the collective bargaining agreement.
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