COLUMBUS -- The Tampa Bay Lightning won't have one and possibly two of their best players for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference First Round against the Columbus Blue Jackets at Nationwide Arena on Sunday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN360, TVAS, FS-O, TVAS).
Right wing Nikita Kucherov, the NHL scoring leader this season with 128 points (41 goals, 87 assists), is suspended for the game, and defenseman Victor Hedman, the Norris Trophy winner last season, is questionable because of an injury.
The Lightning, who trail the best-of-7 series 2-0, haven't had to play without Kucherov all season. They went 6-2-0 in the eight meaningful games they played without Hedman before he missed the last four of the regular season with an upper-body injury, after the Lightning locked up the Presidents' Trophy.
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After a mostly adversity-free regular season that saw them tie the NHL record with 62 wins, the Lightning are being challenged with a heap of problems that should force them into changing some of the tactics that have worked all season.
"You can say all the words that you want, but we have to go and execute it, myself included," captain Steven Stamkos said. "We've got to have our best game of the season next game."
Kucherov was suspended Saturday for boarding Columbus defenseman Markus Nutivaara in Game 2 on Friday. The impact of not having Kucherov, and potentially Hedman, will be felt in how the Lightning attack when they have the puck at 5-on-5, how they run their power play, and how they try to advance the puck out of the defensive zone.
Video: Kucherov suspended one playoff game for boarding
Kucherov played on a line centered by Brayden Point. On Sunday, expect Point to have Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson on his wings. Palat and Johnson started Game 2 with Stamkos as their center; for Game 3, Stamkos is likely to have Yanni Gourde and Mathieu Joseph, moving up from the fourth line, as his linemates.
In the offensive zone, the Lightning love to use misdirection by rimming pucks from the hash marks around the net to set up plays up high or from the side that get defenders turning and spinning and out of position. The Blue Jackets have done a good job of taking some of that away with their strong defensive structure and aggressive but smart pressure. They've been the quicker team when defending. It's limiting the options that are normally there for the Lightning.
The Lightning can counter with closer support in the offensive zone and quick passes that lead to quick shots from lower in the zone, the hash marks or below. That could lead to angled rebound chances on the other side. This adjustment would allow the Lightning to feel like they're arriving to the puck quicker, one of their problems in Game 2, which could force the Blue Jackets to stay back a bit. Any way they can force Columbus to limit its pressure would be beneficial.
It'd be better to have Kucherov, but they don't necessarily need him to make it work, especially if they play a heavier game on the Blue Jackets defensemen when they are working with or without the puck.
Frankly, this is how the Lightning needed to play against the Blue Jackets even with Kucherov and Hedman, but they haven't done it since the first period of Game 1, when they had a 3-0 lead they earned with hard, smart and competitive play.
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On the power play, the Lightning won't have Kucherov in his usual spot in the right face-off circle, meaning that dangerous one-timer option on the opposite side of Stamkos' dangerous one-timer option won't be there. Point, who is expected to move from the middle of the first unit to Kucherov's spot in the right circle, scored 41 goals this season but doesn't have the same shot as Kucherov, which could have an impact on how the Blue Jackets defend Stamkos on the opposite side.
Columbus could shade more to Stamkos' side and blanket him to take away his one-timer, putting more pressure on Tampa Bay to go to different options, with Johnson moving up from the second power-play unit, along with defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, who would man the point if Hedman is out.
The Lightning can still be effective if they have a simpler, shot-rebound-crash mentality on the power play. All the better if they get that shot from Stamkos' one-timer, but Point can't be shy about shooting. The same goes for Sergachev.
The Lightning, who had the No. 1 power play in the NHL in the regular season (28.2 percent), have had a ragged approach with the man-advantage in the first two games. They're 0-for-5 with seven shots and a shorthanded goal-against. A big credit for that goes to the pressure they're getting from the Blue Jackets, but they can limit that if they're quicker with the puck and they shoot at openings.
From the defensive zone, if Hedman is out, Tampa Bay will need more support from its forwards because it won't be able to rely on the stretch pass, a bread-and-butter play from Hedman. (The stretch pass actually hasn't worked at all against the Blue Jackets, who have had their defensemen pushed up to take it away, so the Lightning would have needed to make this adjustment regardless of who is in the lineup.)
The Lightning need their forwards to come back deeper to shorten the ice and create options for shorter, quicker passes leading to breakouts with controlled possession. That's harder to do without Kucherov because of how good he is with the puck, but they have enough skill to be able to create better opportunities for controlled entries.
The task in Game 3 is harder without Kucherov and potentially Hedman, but the Lightning won't be cooked without them if they make the proper adjustments.