Things have been going quite well for the Tampa Bay Lightning so far this fall. With much improved overall team defense and outstanding play in goal coupled with their already stellar offense, they had skated their way to a 12-4-0 start in the first full season of the Jon Cooper era. As they made their way to Boston for a Veterans Day afternoon matchup with the Bruins, the Bolts sat atop the Eastern Conference.
The two teams played to a goalless draw deep into the second period, and then: it happened.
Skating back to help defend against Dougie Hamilton, Steven Stamkos went down and into the goalpost. He tried to get back up to skate off, but crumpled to the ice in pain and was later carted off on a stretcher. Departing with him was his team-leading 14 goals, 23 points, and plus-11 rating. Incoming was the report that he had suffered a broken tibia and would be out indefinitely. Also arriving with this news was the first real intestinal fortitude check for this Tampa Lightning team coached by Cooper.
Adding insult to injury, shortly later, Bolts blueliner Sami Salo became another casualty of their battle in Boston via a hit delivered by Bruins forward Carl Soderberg. Salo departed the ice with his ailing right leg in tow.
“We went 16 games without anybody being hurt and the snowball went down the hill today,” Cooper pointed out following the game. “It was a little tiny guy and it ended up a mountain when it got to the bottom of the hill. Again, I don’t know the prognosis on all these guys, but you lose nobody for 16 games and you lose three games in one, that’s tough.”
The Steven Stamkos’ of the hockey world are few and far between. And when one goes down you don’t just slide another into the breach left in the wake of such an injury. There is little more of a chance that GM Steve Yzerman can find one available on the market, not on such short notice anyway. So it is left up to those who remain to step into that breach, all as one, and fill the void as a singular unit.
Rest assured, there will be no “woe-is-me” attitude emanating from within the Lightning locker room. Not as long as Cooper’s in charge.
“It’s hockey. Everybody loses guys”, Cooper said. “Just pick a team. Everybody’s lost players. Ours just happened all at once and you can’t hang your head. You know it’s going to happen at some point. That’s why you have depth in the organization and we’ll see where we’re at.”
One of the saving graces for this Bolts squad is the fact that they’ve already taken to their coach’s brand of hockey and his system. It’s an all-in and an all-out style of play, demanding that everyone one on the ice be accountable for not only their roles, but the contribution to overall team offense and defense.
But now, each one of them will have to play just that much harder, that much better, that much more responsible, and that much smarter. The top lines as well as the third and fourth will need many more goals, while the defensive pairings need to tighten up just a notch more. As a team they’ll have to become a little stingier on defense, and each one of them can find another point or two out on the ice. Continued solid play from the likes of Ben Bishop between the pipes is in order here, too.
Cooper’s team has already proven they can play well and succeed when things are going good. Now we are about to see what they’re made of when the ice isn’t quite as smooth.