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Next-man up mentality bolsters Bolts back line

by Bryan Burns / Tampa Bay Lightning

On March 25, Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman was injured in a game against the New York Islanders when, while battling for position in front of the Bolts net with Anders Lee, his left leg got caught in the ice as he fell awkwardly onto his back.

Stralman missed the final eight games of the regular season and the First Round of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs with a non-displaced fracture of his left fibula.

But Stralman is recovering and, on Sunday, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said he was “hopeful” the veteran defenseman would make an appearance in the Bolts’ Second Round series.

The opponent?

The New York Islanders

When Stralman skates again, he’ll return to a Bolts back line that experienced little, if any, drop off during his absence from the First Round series against the Red Wings. The revamped Lightning defense allowed just eight goals in five games (four victories) versus Detroit, including a shutout of the Red Wings in a clinching Game 5.

“I never doubted them to begin with,” said Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop when asked if he was encouraged by the way the blueliners stepped up in Stralman’s absence. “They’ve always been there all year. We’ve had guys in and out it seems like the whole year. We have a good defense corps. We have seven guys that could step in at any time. They’ve proven it all year, and I didn’t expect anything less. I don’t think they even elevated. I think we just stayed the same, and they’ve been that way all year.”

Entering Monday, Tampa Bay ranks second in the 2016 playoffs for least amount of goals allowed per game (1.60), trailing only Washington (1.00).

The Lightning were fifth in the NHL for goals allowed (2.41) during the regular season, their highest-ever league finish in their 24 seasons of existence.

“It shows the depth we have,” Bolts defenseman Andrej Sustr said. “We’ve got some veteran defensemen that were able to step in and fill those minutes. I think we all did a good job of stepping up a notch a little bit and playing for Strals. We definitely want to keep going so we get Strals back. And obviously we miss his presence. He plays big minutes for us. He’s part of the power play and any situation on the ice. We’re looking forward to having him back.”

With Stralman out against Detroit, Matt Carle stepped into his spot alongside Victor Hedman on Tampa Bay’s top defensive pairing and thrived. Carle, a healthy scratch at various times this season, saw his ice time go up from 16:47 in the regular season to 18:50 in the First Round series and played a big part in steadying the back line with Stralman absent.

“They knew as a group they were going to have to step up to fill that void of Stralman not being there, and I think plenty of guys stepped up,” Lightning winger Alex Killorn said. “Matty Carle, Sustr, all of them had an unbelievable series.”

The Lightning didn’t adjust much with Stralman out other than sliding someone into his spot and moving on.

“I think it was next man up for the defensemen,” Killorn said. “Stralman’s a little more offensive so in the offensive zone there might be some certain things we do differently, but we didn’t change too much.”

Stralman’s absence versus Detroit was, perhaps, felt more offensively than on the back end. Stralman matched a season high for goals during 2015-16 with nine (albeit in nine less games). Of the 12 goals the Lightning scored in the Detroit series, none were scored by a defenseman.

“I think (Stralman’s) really patient with the puck,” Sustr said. “He’s really strong on his stick and he can make those little plays to break our unit out of the zone and support the rush. He scored quite a few goals this year too, so that was a big loss.”

Stralman has been rehabbing furiously in an attempt to return in the Second Round. During games against Detroit, the 29-year-old Swede could be seen working diligently on his own on an exercise bike in the bowels of the arena. His walking boot and soft cast have long been discarded as well as any noticeable limp.

Stralman is in his fifth week of rehab.

“He’s been showing great progress,” Sustr said. “It’s crazy how fast things can move, and hopefully they’ll continue happening for him.”

Meanwhile, the Lightning have confidence going into the Islanders series that, with or without Stralman, they’ll continue to trot out one of the best defensive teams in the playoffs.

“You can’t replace a guy like Strals,” Bishop said. “But, at the same time, the defense has been good all year.”

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