Injuries in the National Hockey League present quite the anomaly.
No matter how small or minor they are, they always make for big returns.At least that's what a number of Lightning players have in mind this offseason, as several Bolts including Adam Hall, Vincent Lecavalier, Marc-Andre Bergeron, Dana Tyrell, Mattias Ohlund, Mathieu Garon and Bruno Gervais have each been working out inside the team's gym within the Tampa Bay Times Forum in recent weeks as they prepare for the upcoming 2012-13 campaign.
Collectively, the team is coming off a season unlike any other, and one in which the catalog of troubles the club faced throughout the year was well documented. For starters, there was a schedule that sent the team on the road for 11 of its first 14 games. There were trades, which scrambled personnel up and down the roster and altered the chemistry among line combinations and defensive pairings. And of course, there were injuries, the most detrimental of various road blocks faced by the team during what proved to be a long, arduous season.
Ohlund, a cornerstone of the Bolts’ blue line, missed each of the team’s 82 regular-season games due to surgery on both knees, while Marc-Andre Bergeron, a power-play specialist, also missed time, leaving the blue line in flux. Lecavalier, meanwhile, missed a stint of 18 games during the crucial months of February and March, a time when both his offensive production, as well as his off-ice veteran presence proved essential for the playoff hunt.
There was also Hall and Thompson, who remained absent from a number of pivotal playoff hunt games during a late-season push for the postseason. Both were dominant in the faceoff circle, but whose absence in winning draws perhaps contributed to an ailing power play.
The Bolts not only sustained numerous injuries throughout the home stretch, but also during the early goings of the season. Martin St. Louis, Steve Downie, and Ryan Malone collectively missed a combined total of 14 games before the All-Star Break. Contrary to the belief that early-season injuries don't necessarily affect a playoff push towards the end of a season, the past has certainly illustrated these games at the start of the year have proved to be crucial.
"I would argue that games in October and November are more important than games in February and March," Lightning radio broadcaster Dave Mishkin said. "I really thought if the Lightning got off to a hot start at the beginning of the year, they would have been better off down the road."
As if the endless litany of injuries didn't prove difficult enough, the Lightning suffered a yet even more fatal blow to their playoff aspirations when Garon fell victim to a torn groin muscle, ultimately ending his season. At the time, Garon had won six of his previous nine games including a four-game winning streak over that stretch, and had just appeared to be getting into a rhythm. The Lightning were also just four points out of the playoffs at the time of the injury.
Fortunately, the offseason affords players the rare opportunity of escaping the demanding grind of the lengthy 82-game regular-season schedule. Given the next three months to repair and recover from injuries, the Bolts have upped their intensity in their preparation for next season, and are still heavily invested in Coach Boucher's self-described "relentless" style of hockey.
Undoubtedly, the players will be just that, relentless, rejuvenated and anxious to start the season with a fully healthy lineup. Through all of the turmoil and unfortunate luck experienced by the Lightning this past season, the Bolts have come out clean on the other side.
Overall, the Lightning had only three players make it through all 82 games last season, and at one point had nine regular starters out of the lineup. That the injury-battered squad managed to finish just eight points out of a playoff spot, while also tying the franchise single-season record for most home wins are both achievements in and of themselves.
Grinding through a full season checkered with adversity, however, while ultimately making the team stronger, perhaps hurt worse than the injuries themselves.