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Injuries can't slow down Lightning

Tampa Bay keeps losing players but finding ways to win entering Game 2 against Pittsburgh

by Brian Compton @BComptonNHL / Deputy Managing Editor

PITTSBURGH -- Standing on the visitors bench at Consol Energy Center on Friday, all Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper could do was watch while his starting goaltender, Vezina Trophy finalist Ben Bishop, was carted off the ice on a stretcher because of an apparent left-knee injury.

It was a helpless feeling and the type of moment when hockey becomes secondary, even during the chase for the Stanley Cup. Everything Cooper has worked for since training camp was briefly placed on hold.

But once it was time to get back to work, to focus on the task at hand, the Lightning did just that, the same way they did when top-pair defenseman Anton Stralman fractured his leg on March 25, and when their captain, Steven Stamkos, learned a week later he would miss 1-3 months after having vascular surgery for a blood clot.

"When the stretcher comes out on the ice, I think there's a natural concern when that happens," Cooper said on a conference call Saturday, one day after his Lightning once again found a way in a 3-1 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Final. "I think the game kind of goes from a game to, 'Oh my gosh. This is serious.'

Video: TBL@PIT, Gm1: Bishop exits with injury in the 1st

"So I think there was a moment there where there was probably concern on everybody. The break ended up being a little bit longer than obviously any of us anticipated. It's a big reason why we've gotten where we are in this playoffs and season, because of the demeanor and calmness on our bench. Can I sit here and say two years ago when Ben went down against Toronto [in 2014] that we had the same attitude? Probably not.

"But this year, they're a team. Nobody wanted to see this happen to Ben at all, but there was a calm among everybody that, 'Hey, we can do this.' There's complete confidence in [backup Andrei] Vasilevskiy in the sense that I think the guys weren't wavering. If there was a concern, it was about Ben's health. It was never about, 'Oh my gosh, this game's in doubt.' I think that's a big reason why we pushed forward where we are right now."

The injuries to Stralman and Stamkos could have meant a short stay in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the Lightning. Instead, they eliminated the Detroit Red Wings in five games in the Eastern Conference First Round. After losing Game 1 against the New York Islanders in the second round, Tampa Bay won four straight. Nothing seems to faze these Lightning, as evidenced again when their No. 1 goaltender was injured Friday.

Tampa Bay did get some good news Saturday, when Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman told the Tampa Bay Times that Bishop is day-to-day because of a lower-body injury, a remarkable turn of events considering how bad it looked the night before. But even if Bishop played his last game of the season Friday, the goal remains the same heading into Game 2 here on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

"This has kind of been the story of our postseason," Cooper said. "Whether it was Anton Stralman going down late in the year, Steven Stamkos going down after that, and even J.T. Brown in the Detroit series, we've had Matt Carle go down … I think we've had nine or 10 different defensemen play in this playoff season. We've had two goaltenders play. It's something that just seems to follow us around, but it hasn't changed our drive and our attitude probably with all the injuries that have happened to us so far.

Video: TBL@PIT, Gm1: Vasilevskiy moves left to deny Crosby

"We just hope that this is end [of the injuries], and we're able to get all these guys back because it's, 'OK, let's not let this be Stralman's last game or Stamkos' last game or [J.T.] Brown or Bishop or any of these guys. If we're going out, we're all going out together. We keep hanging around. It's really not ideal for it to happen this way, but our boys are pretty driven."

The Game 6 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final that ended the Lightning's season must feel like a lifetime ago, but the memory of watching the Blackhawks celebrate remains fresh. They don't want to have that feeling again.

The 2015-16 season has been another long one in Tampa Bay. But with the way Vasilevskiy performed in Game 1, when he made 16 saves in the third period to protect a lead, and the way the players in front of him performed despite losing another key component to injury, there are reasons to believe there could remarkably be a happy ending.

"I think the one thing that they've all adopted, and I think this is from going through what we went through last year is what it takes to get here," Cooper said. "You think about seven exhibition games, 82 regular-season games and now we've played 11 playoff games. We're in the hundreds of how many games we've played this year. You add that on to what we played last year, and it's just being in these situations before and how we've dealt with them and how you deal with just all the unknown circumstances that can happen.

"I think our guys, they've passed every test. Unfortunately, we fell two wins short last year, but I think those experiences have maybe drawn our team a little closer together. It's really gratifying to watch these guys go. I feel fortunate that I'm their coach."

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