On Wednesday, the Tampa Bay Lightning were defeated by the New York Islanders by a score of 3-2 in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Semifinal. Scott Mayfield scored a goal midway through the third period to complete the Islanders’ comeback and force overtime. Just over a minute into the extra frame, Anthony Beauvillier scored to send the series back to Tampa for an elimination Game 7.
One of the major events during the game occurred early on in the contest. The Lightning’s star forward Nikita Kucherov was injured on his first shift. It appeared at first that he was injured when he checked Mathew Barzal. However, it is more likely that the injury occurred earlier in his shift when he was cross-checked by Mayfield. Although the play happened in front of the referee, no penalty was called.
The Lightning initially played well without Kucherov, jumping out to a two-goal lead midway through the second period. However, they took their foot off of the gas just enough to let the Islanders back into the game. His absence was not the reason they lost the game, but it certainly played a role. As of now, head coach Jon Cooper has not given any updates on the injury. The fact that Kucherov did not return to the game indicates the injury could be serious. The Lightning played the entire season without the 28-year-old forward, so his absence would not be a new challenge for the team. However, it would be a huge loss going into the biggest game of the season. Let’s take a look at who could be inserted into the lineup if Kucherov can’t go on Friday for Game 7.
The most likely candidate to get the call-up is Mathieu Joseph. He played in all 56 games during the regular season, tallying 12 goals and seven assists. He spent most of his time on the fourth line, but he could be a good fit on the second or third line, too. However, it would make the most sense for him to rejoin the fourth line with Pat Maroon and Ross Colton. This would likely mean that Tyler Johnson rejoins the third line, a familiar role for the 30-year-old veteran.
Joseph would bring a lot to the lineup. His ability to utilize his speed and get in on the forecheck would be a valuable asset in the high-intensity game ahead. One concern the Lightning may have with him is his playoff experience, which is minimal. Unfortunately, none of the forwards the team can bring in have a significant number of games played in the postseason. Joseph has been featured in the playoffs this season, stepping into the lineup during the first round when Barclay Goodrow was injured. All in all, Joseph was solid for the Lightning throughout the regular season and has earned his spot in the lineup.
Inserting Alex Barre-Boulet into the lineup would be an interesting move for the Lightning. The 24-year-old made his first appearance in the NHL this season. In 15 games, he registered three goals and 26 shots. Although he struggled to get points on the scoresheet, he impressed with his speed and creativity. He was also thrust into a big role, playing on the first line alongside Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat.
Barre-Boulet’s lack of experience should be noted here. Playing in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final could prove to be too much pressure for a debut playoff appearance. Additionally, his size and lack of physicality do not lend well to the physicality of the series at hand. Although he is a less likely choice to replace Kucherov, his ability to create chances on offense would be beneficial to the Lightning against an Islanders team known for limiting such opportunities.
Mitchell Stephens was dealt a tough hand this season. He suffered a lower-body injury in January when he got tangled with now teammate David Savard in a game against the Columbus Blue Jackets. He ultimately played in just seven games during the regular season, tallying only one assist along the way. Had he not been injured, he likely would have earned a more permanent role in the lineup. However, the rise of Colton and Barre-Boulet hurt his playing time when returned from injury.
Stephens would be a conservative approach to Game 7. He is a solid two-way forward that is responsible on the defensive end of the ice. His ability to play a physical game and win faceoffs would allow him to easily fit back into the fourth-line center role. He also has the added benefit of having playoff experience, appearing in seven games during the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs. His lack of playing time this season is hard to overlook, though. Thus, Joseph likely gets the nod over Stephens.
Biggest Game of the Season
Regardless of who plays in Game 7, they will be entering the biggest game of the season. The Lightning have not had to play in an elimination game since the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs when they were swept by the Blue Jackets. The team has had success against the Islanders in previous playoff series and they typically bounce back well after being defeated. They have not lost in back-to-back playoff games since the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Lightning have shown maturity and adaptability in recent seasons, so it is hard to bet against them in a Game 7 at home. Nevertheless, they’ll have to play their best game of the season when they take on the Islanders on Friday as they seek their second straight Stanley Cup Final appearance.
Andrew is a freelance writer who covers the Tampa Bay Lightning at The Hockey Writers. He is a passionate hockey fan who grew up near Tampa, Florida. He is a husband, father to a Golden Retriever, and is studying to be a Physician Assistant. Follow me on Twitter: @Andrew_Mulville