Fans hoping to see some of the National Hockey League's biggest superstars when the Tampa Bay Lightning host the Edmonton Oilers tonight at AMALIE Arena are going to be in for a bit of a letdown.
The Lightning will be without their top two scorers in Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos when they take on the Oilers. Anthony Cirelli, arguably the team's best two-way forward, will be missing from the lineup too. All three forwards are day-to-day with lower-body injuries and are unable to play against Edmonton.
That's in addition to defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Jan Rutta, who are expected to be out for at least another week-and-a-half as they too recover from lower-body injuries.
On the Edmonton side, Hart Trophy candidate Connor McDavid will be absent as he rehabs a quad injury that will see him miss three to four weeks. James Neal is also on injured reserve recovering from an ankle injury.
Video: Cooper on match-up with Oilers
"You feel bad for some of the fans that wanted to see some of the marquee players in the league," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "They're not going to get to see them tonight, but bottom line is it's one team that's been on a little bit of a run here that's put themselves in a good spot and another team that's having a breakout year and are fighting for a playoff spot. You go look into the two dressing rooms, both teams should be gaming it out tonight."
The good news for the Lightning is they should be getting Stamkos, Kucherov and Cirelli back fairly soon. Stamkos missed the last two games but was one of the first players on the ice for Thursday's morning skate. The Lightning captain, however, didn't take line rushes and came off the ice early, perhaps an indication he tested the injury to see if he could go tonight and determined it was best not to push it.
Cirelli and Kucherov were both injured in the second period of the 2-1 overtime win Tuesday in Pittsburgh and were not on the ice for morning skate. The fact both are listed as day-to-day and not expected to miss an extended period of time is certainly a positive.
"We're running into the injury bug right now, but for the most part, we've been in a pretty good situation (injury-wise)," Cooper said. "Every team gets hurt, and players are in and out of the lineup."
The Lightning recalled forward Alexander Volkov from Syracuse Wednesday evening. He'll figure into the lineup and make his first appearance since January 16 and ninth appearance overall. Also, defenseman Cameron Gaunce will get his first NHL action of 2019-20 as the Bolts will use an 11 forward, seven defensemen alignment against the Oilers.
Video: Preview | Lightning vs Oilers
"The 22 guys that make your team out of camp aren't the 22 guys you're going to play with the whole year," Cooper said. "You need to have depth in the organization. I think that we've done a great job of that, at least while I've been here. It is playing to a system and ultimately playing hard. Guys are playing hard, but they know what we need to do to have success."
To combat having three of their top forwards out, some Lightning players will have to skate more minutes or be put in situations maybe they're aren't as used to. And going with 11 forwards, linemates will probably change continually throughout the evening.
But at least one player didn't feel the extra ice time should be an issue for the Lightning and could potentially even be a benefit.
"I think a lot of times you feel better when you're just rolling, you get into that groove of going out every minute or so," Tyler Johnson said. "I think in some ways it actually helps you."