The Tampa Bay Lightning entered Monday with the Eastern Conference's best record and superstar Steven Stamkos playing at an elite level.
Following a 3-0 loss to the Boston Bruins at TD Garden, the Lightning still sit atop the East. They will have to move forward without Stamkos, however, as the 23-year-old who is tied for the most goals (14) and points (23) in the NHL is out indefinitely after breaking his tibia after colliding with the goal post in the second period.
Stamkos is scheduled to undergo surgery Tuesday.
STAMKOS INJURED MONDAY VS. BRUINS
For the Lightning, who went all the way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final in 2011 but have missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs in five of the past six seasons, the question now becomes whether they can navigate a highly competitive Atlantic Division without perhaps the game's best pure scorer in their lineup.
"It's tough to lose a guy like that," said Lightning coach Jon Cooper, who has seemingly pushed all the right buttons since being promoted midway through the 2012-13 season after the dismissal of Guy Boucher. "We'll see what we're made of. You talk about a test, this is a test."
In order to pass that test, Cooper will need to continue getting contributions from up and down his roster. No one player can replace what Stamkos brings to the Lightning statistically, but it's not as though he's carried them singlehandedly on his shoulders to their fast start.
Currently, there are five other Tampa Bay players that have scored four or more goals and 10 with at least six points.
Valtteri Filppula, who left the Detroit Red Wings to sign a five-year, $25 million contract, is off to a solid start with six goals and 12 points. Alex Killorn appears to be taking the next step in his development with four goals and 12 points. Teddy Purcell has five goals and 10 points, including the overtime winner Saturday in Detroit.
Then there's a wily old veteran by the name of Martin St. Louis. Last season, he became the oldest player in NHL history to win the Art Ross Trophy, finishing with 60 points to outscore Stamkos and everyone else in the League. Now 38, St. Louis hasn't given much indication he plans to slow down. Though he's scoreless in his past four games, he had seven goals and 16 points in 13 games to begin the season.
Each of the aforementioned players will have to take on a slightly larger role when it comes to the scoring load. Young guys such as Tyler Johnson (four goals, seven points) and veterans like Ryan Malone (two goals, eight points) will be counted on as well. On defense, Victor Hedman (two goals, seven points) and Radko Gudas (one goal, six points) may have to pinch a little extra and think slightly more offensively in Stamkos' absence.
Injuries suffered by defensemen Sami Salo and Keith Aulie on Monday could also be cause for concern, but if the Lightning can remain relatively healthy along the blue line and continue to receive top-rate goaltending from Ben Bishop (11-2-0, 2.12 goals-against average, .927 save percentage), then they can continue to win the 2-1 type games that could become more common moving forward.
As much sympathy and good will as players and coaches around the League offered Stamkos after he went down, none of Tampa Bay's opponents are about to feel sorry for them, much less the schedule maker. After finishing off a road trip Tuesday night against the Montreal Canadiens, the Lightning return home Thursday to host the team with the League's best record, the Anaheim Ducks, then head out on a four-game road trip against teams from the Pacific Division, widely regarded as the toughest in hockey.
In their own division, they have to concern themselves with the defending Eastern Conference champion Boston Bruins, the up-and-coming Toronto Maple Leafs, perennial contenders in the Red Wings and a division champion from a season ago in the Canadiens. And that's not even mentioning the surging Ottawa Senators.
Make no mistake, getting to the postseason just got a whole lot tougher for the Lightning without their past Rocket Richard winner to lean on.
However, if Cooper can keep his players from bemoaning their own bad fortune and coax enough supplemental scoring out of the many capable talents on his hands, they could stay in the mix long enough for Stamkos to hopefully return later in the season and put an exclamation point on the Tampa Bay comeback story he helped author these first six weeks.