NEW YORK — In recent days, as Mikhail Sergachev neared his first game in more than seven weeks, his smile was back.
The Lightning defenseman had been frustrated by how long it took to recover from the lower left leg injury he sustained Dec. 19, but he was invigorated by his return to the Lightning lineup. The team played its first game coming out of the All-Star break on Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.
Sergachev’s return took a sudden turn 27 minutes into the game with the Rangers. His night — and potentially his season — ended in a stream of emotion that was visible on the 25-year-old’s face as he was wheeled off the ice, sitting up on a stretcher after suffering a devastating injury. His left leg had crumpled underneath his own weight as he awkwardly he fell to the ice during the Lightning’s 3-1 loss.
“It’s not fun,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said of watching his teammate go down. “You feel sick to your stomach.”
“It was terrible,” echoed Lightning coach Jon Cooper, who was visibly emotional after the game. “I feel awful for him.”
At the seven-minute mark in the second period, Sergachev was closing in on Rangers forward Alexis Lafreniere in the corner near the defensive zone right circle. Protecting the puck, Lafreniere sensed Sergachev’s approach and braced for the hit, leaning into Sergachev as he made contact. Sergachev fell backward, his left leg twisting under his own weight as he became tangled with Lafreniere’s left leg.
Sergachev writhed in pain, immediately clutching his left leg as Lightning athletic trainers Tom Mulligan and Mike Poirier ran from the bench across the ice to attend to him. While the trainers tried to stabilize Sergachev’s leg, they quickly called for a stretcher.
The Garden fell silent as the entire Lightning bench emptied to be by Sergachev’s side, many players taking a knee. Teammates Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, Nick Paul and Stamkos surrounded him.
“To see him in such pain, it’s hard and you feel for him and just pray for the best,” Hedman said.
As Sergachev was wheeled across the ice, the crowd gave him an ovation and he covered his face with a towel, receiving well wishes from Rangers players on the way to the Zamboni tunnel. Sergachev lifted his right hand to the crowd before disappearing down the tunnel.
“In the end, you’ve got your biological family, but this is the people you spend pretty much your whole life with,” Cooper said. “And so it goes beyond hockey, and he’s a really tough kid. And there was emotions coming out. So, you really care for the guys. It was clear, like, the Rangers cared for him. They all cleared the bench. So it’s slightly a bit more than hockey.”
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Sergachev missed the previous 17 games after he took a puck to the back of his left skate. Initially, it was believed he would only miss a week, but he ended up on long-term injured reserve.
Sergachev, who won his second Stanley Cups days after turning 23, is regarded as one of the league’s top young defensemen. Two offseasons ago, the Lightning signed him to an eight-year, $68 million extension that began this season, making him the team’s highest-paid defenseman (average annual value of $8.5 million).
Last season, Sergachev set a career high in points with 64 and tied his high in goals (10). But this season, as the team struggled early, so did Sergachev, who was a minus-15 in 33 games before his injury. But getting an extra 10 days off for the All-Star break helped, and he was excited to return with a fresh perspective, ready to help the Lightning make a playoff push.
“I thought it was kind of good for me to take a break mentally,” Sergachev said Monday. “But then I started getting mad because at some point that wasn’t getting better and it was kind of stale. And then I feel like the break and starting skating kind of helped. I started getting better and just feel good.”
The Lightning clearly were rattled the rest of the night. Already trailing 1-0 when Sergachev was injured, they slogged through the rest of the second period and fell behind by two goals. Brandon Hagel’s goal in the third cut the lead to one, but the Lightning couldn’t score the equalizer, despite a late power play in which Hedman hit the post. After Cooper emptied the net for an extra attacker inside the final two minutes, New York’s Jimmy Vesey scored his second goal of the night.
“I don’t think anyone forgot about (the injury), but we just got to go out there and do it for him,” Hedman said. “I think we had a great push in the third. I think overall, you look through three periods of play, I think we deserved points out of this game. Maybe the second (period) they were the better team, but I think overall, we had some unbelievable chances.”
“You want to try to rally behind that, but we’re humans first,” Stamkos said. “And when you see something like that, like I said, it puts an uneasy feeling in your stomach. So it puts the game into perspective and we just hope he’s OK.”
This core group of Lightning players have seen such scary scenes before. Stamkos was stretchered off after breaking his right leg during a game in Boston in 2013, and he missed more than four months. And in Game 1 of the 2016 Eastern Conference final, goaltender Ben Bishop came off the ice on a stretcher and didn’t return in the series, replaced by then-backup Andrei Vasilevskiy.
“Obviously, Sergy put a lot of time and effort to come back from his original injury and to see something pretty traumatic like that happen, from someone who has been through that, it’s tough to watch,” Stamkos said.
The early prognosis wasn’t promising. Asked whether the Lightning should prepare to be without Sergachev for the remainder of the season, Cooper swallowed hard, then said: “I don’t know. Let’s ... let’s not think that way now.”
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