MONTREAL -- This is foreign territory for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
When the Lightning take the ice against the Montreal Canadiens at Bell Centre on Tuesday (7:30 p.m., RDS) it will be the first time they'll do so without Steven Stamkos due to an injury, and it will snap a streak of 344 consecutive games played for the Tampa Bay superstar.
Stamkos broke his right tibia when he slammed into his own goal post Monday at TD Garden in Boston. Stamkos was scheduled for surgery on his leg Tuesday in Boston and he is out indefinitely.
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Stamkos only had missed three games in his career -- Jan. 9, 17 and 29, 2009, when then-coach Rick Tocchet made him a healthy scratch to get him on a conditioning program in his rookie season. He was 19 at the time.
The idea of playing without Stamkos is something that will take some getting used to for Lightning captain Martin St. Louis, who himself has missed five games in the past eight seasons.
"Not having him around on the ice and off the ice, it's different," St. Louis said after the team held a meeting at Bell Centre on Tuesday. "He's one of our leaders and he's a really well-liked guy, so when he's not around it's different."
It's going to be very difficult for the Lightning to replace what Stamkos brought them.
With everyone on the team saying they will need to compensate collectively for the loss of Stamkos, there is perhaps no player in the NHL who is as vital to his team's production.
Prior to games Tuesday, Stamkos had a share of the NHL lead in goals with Alexander Steen of the St. Louis Blues at 14, which represents 26.9 percent of the Lightning's 52 non-shootout goals scored this season. Only Steen, at 28 percent, has scored a higher percentage of his team's non-shootout goals than Stamkos has for the Lightning. When his assists are taken into account, Stamkos has had a hand in 44.2 percent of Tampa Bay's goals. Only Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins, at 46.9 percent, has a higher percentage.
"It's hard to replace one of the best players in the League," Lightning forward Ryan Malone said. "He does everything very, very well."
Malone and St. Louis are the only current Lightning players who were with the team the last time Stamkos missed a game, and while both have played on his line, it is St. Louis that has been a mainstay on Stamkos' right wing.
As captain, St. Louis said he feels the need to shoulder more of a load with Stamkos' offense out of the lineup.
"It's up to me to take charge and show the way and I hope everyone follows," he said. "It's going to be maybe a little bit of a different game for me, but I take it as a challenge. Hopefully I can lead the way."
The Lightning enter Tuesday as the top team in the Eastern Conference with a 12-5-0 record, representing one of the NHL's biggest surprises through the first quarter of the season.
Coach Jon Cooper has convinced the Lightning that defense is the path to success and they have bought in to this point, sitting 12th in the NHL in goals-against per game after finishing 26th last season and 30th the season before that.
STAMKOS INJURY COVERAGE
It's something that may have to be even more reinforced now that a big chunk of the offense is gone.
"The one thing coming into this season wasn't how many goals we were going to score; it was how many we were going to keep out of the net," Cooper said. "We've done that this year. It started with our goaltending, but as a collective group we don't give up the grade-A chances we used to. You need five guys to do that, not just one guy.
"But the one thing about [Stamkos] is he makes people think. Everybody knows when he's on the ice. He stretches defenses and makes people play a little more conservative when he's out there."
The loss of an important player often can be a rallying cry for a team, particularly in the first game after the injury, so the Lightning may be a difficult team for Montreal to face. But over the long-term it will be a challenge for the Lightning to maintain the torrid pace they have set for themselves in the early going while relying on one of the best players in the NHL.
But Cooper has little doubt his team is up for the challenge.
"For 16 games I think we were just getting to that point where people were starting to look at us and think that we might be for real," Cooper said. "In the second period [Monday], all those people that thought we might be for real went right back to thinking that these guys are done. That's why everybody in [our dressing] room is saying, 'Let's prove to everybody that we're not a fluke.'
"We're up near the top of the standings for a reason and we're going to stay there."