It had been almost three full weeks since a team hung a regulation loss on the Tampa Bay Lightning. Back on Jan. 23, the Columbus Blue Jackets beat Tampa 5-2 dominating most of the game. That night, Steven Stamkos played but had no real effect on the outcome with just two shots and zero points. In Thursday night’s 5-2 loss to the Florida Panthers, he didn’t even dress due to a reported lower-body injury.
Without Stamkos, the forward lines for the Bolts had to be reshuffled to fill the hole. Tyler Johnson moved up to the top line alongside the red-hot Brayden Point, flanked by Ondrej Palat. Moving Johnson up a line meant that Mathieu Joseph had to be plugged in to replace him next to Anthony Cirelli and Alex Killorn. Joseph has been a real trooper all season filling in wherever needed on three different lines so far during the first 12 games. He’s also been far from a liability, chipping in four goals with an assist and is a plus-2.
Joseph is obviously no Stamkos, and in the two regulation losses this season, it’s been shown that the Lightning will only go as far as the captain can take them. The different lineup the team had to use tonight played a part, no doubt. In EA’s NHL 21 video game, the plug and play line shuffling works, but here in the real world where chemistry is such a key, it just doesn’t, especially on such short notice.
Lightning Looked Confused and Disconcerted Against Panthers
The Lightning seemed a step too slow all night. The Florida forecheck gave the Bolts constant fits, causing disruption and making it difficult to move the puck out of their own zone. Turnovers aplenty created multiple Panthers’ scoring chances from inside the slot and right in front of the crease. Even the steady duo of Victor Hedman and Jan Rutta looked overwhelmed at times being constantly pressured while trying to get the breakouts going.
Andrei Vasilevskiy was excellent between the pipes and he needed to be all game. At about the 10-minute mark of the second period, the Lightning had just 10 shots on goal because they simply couldn’t maintain possession of the puck. Florida goalie Sergei Bobrovsky did have some testers at the other end, but not nearly the quality or quantity that Vasilevskiy dealt with all night.
Brayden Point was another bright spot, scoring both goals, but both were more of a result of great solo efforts on his part than from good play from the team. This highlights how teams might attack the Bolts moving forward if Stammer misses more than just a few games here and there. He has been fantastic this season, still leading the team in goals even with the two scored by Point in his absence. He’s also tied with Hedman for second on the team in points with 14.
Stamkos Has Reaffirmed Why He’s the Captain This Season
The numbers are one thing, but the overall presence of Stamkos this season is what the Lightning have needed most. When it was announced that Nikita Kucherov would miss the entire season with a hip injury, the chance to repeat as Stanley Cup champions took a huge hit. Nonetheless, the team has looked great in most of the games this season, garnering praise across the league for how well they’ve coped with missing a player like Kucherov.
This season’s early success has been the product of many players stepping up, but make no mistake, Stamkos has led the team. If he is not in the lineup, or rendered fairly ineffective, the Lightning will not repeat as Cup winners. The Blue Jackets have a way of taking him away and making others beat them. Tonight the Panthers didn’t have to deal with him, but that forced the others on the team to beat them and they just couldn’t do it.
The Panthers don’t play exactly like Columbus but there are similarities. Both teams like to get in your face physically and disrupt things early in your own zone. Florida coach Joel Quenneville, going back to his Chicago Blackhawk days, has had his teams playing this style for years. Yes, Chicago had great players like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Kieth, no argument there. However, it was the team’s commitment to attack the opposition in all three zones that was the real reason for the 452-249-96 record and three Cup victories for Coach Q.
The Latest Stamkos Injury Is Worrisome
This Florida team is not those Chicago teams, but they’ve been pretty good this year. Still, just the one loss on the season and have now just beaten the consensus best team in the division in a game that wasn’t close. The next two games against each other could be more telling. If Stamkos plays it’ll give a clearer picture of how the teams actually match up.
If he misses both, the Lightning will get more time on the ice to get used to the new lines, which should help them play more cohesively in the next two contests. His status right now is day-to-day, but given his recent injury history, there’s a decent chance that Tampa just holds him out for a bit longer than usual.
Stamkos came into this year, having missed a bunch of regular-season games and most of the playoffs last season after having sports hernia surgery. This was the second time in just a year that he had to undergo such a procedure. This latest setback comes right as he was playing his best hockey of this young season.
The captain had just started to really heat up, having scored in five of the last six games. The streak was highlighted by the 6-1 Tuesday thrashing of the Nashville Predators, where he had 2 goals and an assist. The fact that he’s injured again so early in the season is an obvious concern and if he misses significant time, the Bolts could struggle all season long.
Frank is a former competitive hockey player at the D3 college level. He’s what you’d call a hockey “lifer” having also worked as a hockey referee, time keeper and assistant youth coach, along with being a longtime member of USA Hockey. Frank comes to THW after contributing content on the Tampa Bay Lightning, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Orlando Magic for BackSportsPage.com.