The Tampa Bay Lightning earned one of their biggest wins of the season -- and maybe their best -- after a demonstrative 4-1 victory over the Minnesota Wild, the top team in the Western Conference.
Unfortunately, they couldn't enjoy it because of injuries to three key players, all centers.
Vladislav Namestnikov and Tyler Johnson both sustained lower-body injuries within a few minutes of one another in the second period and did not return to the game. Cedric Paquette got his left leg bent underneath him in the third period and had to be helped off the ice as well. He, too, did not return.
The loss of Namestnikov, Johnson and Paquette cast a pall over what should have been a spirited celebration after dismantling one of the NHL's best teams.
Now, the Lightning will have to patchwork a lineup together in time for Saturday's game against the Florida Panthers.
Plenty of ground to cover from Thursday night's win.
3 Things from beating Minnesota ahead.
Video: Condensed Game: Wild @ Lightning
1. NOTABLE VICTORY
The Lightning have been playing their best hockey of the season for over a month now, improving to 9-2-3 since February 4 following the three-goal victory versus Minnesota.
But in games against the league's best, the Lightning were still coming up short. In a visit to Minnesota on February 10, the Bolts squandered Andrei Vasilevskiy's 37-save performance in a shootout loss.
Tampa Bay held a 1-0 lead in Pittsburgh on March 3 but couldn't sustain its play in a 5-2 loss that was closer than the score would indicate. And on Monday, the Lightning and the New York Rangers battled to a scoreless draw through 60 minutes, but the Rangers came out on top in overtime.
The Lightning needed a signature win.
They got it following a dominating performance against the West leading Wild.
"We got rewarded today," said Bolts defenseman Victor Hedman, who picked up two points on the night and tied Fredrik Modin for seventh place on Tampa Bay's all-time scoring list in the process. "That Rangers game was really good from both teams. Minnesota reminds me a lot about the Rangers with the way that they play. Tough team to beat and great goaltending. For us to come through like this is big for us going down the stretch. We're going to need more efforts like this to get in, but it's obviously a good step in the right direction."
The Lightning did a lot of things right against Minnesota. But maybe the most important was the way they responded after the injuries continued to mount.
"They were just responsible," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "It was gritty. It was gutty. They were doing all the right things. We were getting in shot lanes. They played to win a hockey game, and that's what we did."
Video: MIN@TBL: Johnson leaves game after taking a hit
2. BAD TIMING
The Lightning were finally hitting their stride after inconsistency plagued them through the first four months of the season. Thursday's win over Minnesota brought them to within three points of Toronto in the race for the final wild card in the Eastern Conference.
Losing three players who all play major roles on the team therefore couldn't have come at a worse time for the Bolts.
Cooper's response when asked about the significance of the injuries after the game didn't exactly inspire a lot of confidence.
"It doesn't sound encouraging for any of them, but, again, it's not my job," he said. "I think everybody saw the replay on Ceddy's. That didn't look good at all. We'll see tomorrow, but they've all got lower body injuries. If we got one of them for Saturday, that would be a blessing. That's where we're at. We'll see what happens."
The Lightning finished Thursday's game with only nine forwards, and one of them, Luke Witkowski, was a defenseman six days ago.
"Props to all the forwards tonight: Playing nine or ten guys against a really tough opponent, it takes a lot," Hedman said. "They kept their shifts short and kept it simple most of the night, a real team effort. This is one of those games where you need to come through as a team, and we really did tonight. Really proud of the guys and obviously a big boost for us."
What would be an even bigger boost for the Bolts if they find the injuries to Namestnikov, Johnson and Paquette aren't as severe as initially feared.
Video: MIN@TBL: Vasilevskiy extends stick to keep puck out
3. ANDREI OWNS MINNESOTA
Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy put together maybe his best performance of the season four weeks ago in Minnesota when he made 37-of-38 saves, many of them in spectacular fashion. Vasilevskiy was unfortunate to take the loss when the Wild prevailed in a shootout.
On Thursday, Vasilevskiy got his revenge.
The 22-year-old Russian continued to confound the Wild, stopping 32-of-33 pucks and nearly pitching a shutout until Marco Scandella slid a rebound into the back of the net with 3:58 remaining in the game, a meaningless goal with the contest already well in hand.
Vasilevskiy is now 4-0-1 over his last five starts and has a .959 save percentage and 1.36 goals-against average during that stretch.
After the game, Tampa Bay defenseman Anton Stralman was asked if Vasilevskiy's stellar play of late was a result of him getting breaks he wasn't getting at the beginning of the season or Vasilevskiy elevating his game to another level after the Lightning traded Ben Bishop to Los Angeles and named him their starting goalie.
Stralman said it's a bit of both.
"I think he's been playing well the whole time," he answered. "I think he might have been a little bit unlucky there for a little stretch, but he's definitely stepping up right now. The whole team is playing good hockey and we're feeding off each other right now. He's definitely holding the fort down real well there."
The Lightning are playing great hockey right now. Vasilevskiy turning in stellar performances night in and night out is a major reason why.