The Tampa Bay Lightning have played quite a few games since the All-Star Break. The team is almost through a 19-games-over-33-days stretch, including back-to-back games over the past three weekends. That, along with the number of extra playoff games over the past few years, has led the Lightning to show some fatigue in their play recently, as they have gone 6-8-2 over the last 16 games, culminating with Thursday night’s (March 23) disappointing 7-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators. Now it is up to head coach Jon Cooper to ensure that his team is well rested heading into the playoffs and that they are playing to their optimal level.
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There are two big roadblocks for Cooper to be able to do this. First, if you tell an NHL player that he has to take a night off for rest, you will likely see teammates dragging him up to the seat, kicking and screaming. This is not the NBA, where star players routinely take nights off for “maintenance.” NHL players, when healthy, want to play every night and every shift possible. It is not in their DNA to take a night off.
The second is if a player does miss a game for some reason, who will replace him? No matter which position or line they are assigned to, those players will be expected to contribute to the team when in the lineup. In the case of the Lightning, they have three players who will need to play valuable minutes down the stretch so that everyone on the roster can be as well-rested as possible heading into the playoffs.
The 26-year-old has been doing what the Lightning hoped for when they sent forward Vladislav Namestnikov to the San Jose Sharks on March 1. In recent weeks, Michael Eyssimont has seen a great deal of time in the lineup, giving breaks to the Lightning’s veterans, who have played a lot of playoff games in recent years. The playing time has also allowed him to integrate into the team while also serving as a trial to see if the native of Littleton, Colorado can be of some value when the playoffs start.
He has yet to register a point for the Lightning and is a minus-3 in his 11 games with the team. But he has centered the fourth line and provided crucial minutes without a negative impact, allowing the team to have some peace of mind while some regulars have the night off.
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In his 39 games with the Sharks and Winnipeg Jets before arriving in Tampa Bay, he posted four goals and 13 points. His unspectacular but solid performance while in the lineup will help the Lightning on many levels moving forward.
One of the reasons why Cal Foote became expendable was the play of Darren Raddysh while he was in the American Hockey League (AHL) skating for the Syracuse Crunch. Before his call-up on March 2, the 27-year-old led all Crunch defensemen in scoring and ranked second among AHL defensemen scoring leaders. He also ranked second among all AHL defensemen for assists, tied for second in goals, and was selected to represent the North Division at the 2023 AHL All-Star Classic.
Since arriving in Tampa Bay, the former free agent signee of the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs has become more comfortable with each shift and each game. While he has yet to score, he has a booming shot, winning the hardest shot competition at the AHL All-Star Game with a blast that reached 102 mph. In addition to having a hard shot, he is a player that has been very good at moving the puck in both ends of the ice. If he continues to bring this skill set to the Lightning, he could be quite the complementary player for either Victor Hedman or Mikhail Sergachev.
This one is a bit of a no-brainer, but yet may be the most crucial substitute for the Lightning’s future playoff success. Starting goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy may be starting to show some signs of fatigue. In March, he has gone 3-4-2 in his first nine starts with a 3.42 goals-against average (GAA) and a .883 save percentage (SV%), which are un-Vasilevskiy-like numbers. While usually playing only when the Lightning have back-to-back games, Brian Elliott has been solid in net for the team.
“The biggest part of this part of the season is the rest,” Cooper said in a recent interview. “For me, it’s keeping our guys as fresh as possible, which is really, really tough this time of year” (from ‘Late-season fatigue a challenge for Lightning down the stretch’, Tampa Bay Times, March 20, 2023). Cooper held true to his word as he rested Vasilevskiy and started Elliott in the 7-2 loss to the Senators. Even though he did not get much help in the loss, Elliott was not at his best in that game. It is imperative that the 37-year-old plays to the level he can so the coaching staff feels comfortable giving Vasilevskiy the time off he needs to be ready for the playoffs.
The Lightning will need to be physically and mentally ready when the playoffs start if they expect to reach their fourth straight Stanley Cup Final. For that to happen, the depth of their roster will be tested to ensure everyone is rested as much as possible before the playoffs begin.