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Depleted Lightning keep winning despite injuries

Tampa Bay, playing without Stamkos, Stralman, reaches second straight conference final

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

TAMPA -- Anton Stralman was injured March 25 when the Tampa Bay Lightning played the New York Islanders. He battled in front of the net and his left leg bent awkwardly beneath him as he fell to the ice. Diagnosis: fractured fibula. Timeline: out indefinitely.

Steven Stamkos was injured March 31 after the Lightning played the Montreal Canadiens. His right arm was heavy and swollen after a postgame workout, so he went to see the medical staff. He had surgery April 4. Diagnosis: a blood clot. Timeline: out 1-3 months.

At that point the Lightning seemed unlikely to return to the Eastern Conference Final, let alone get there in 10 games. Stralman was a top-pair defenseman. Stamkos was their captain and leading goal-scorer. To go deep in the Stanley Cup Playoffs you're supposed to need health and luck along the way, and the Lightning had neither before they even started.

"You need a lot of things to go right to make a good run," Lightning center Brian Boyle said. "Those are some blows."

Video: NYI@TBL, Gm5: Lightning advance to ECF with 4-0 win

But the Lightning have blown away everyone since. They eliminated the New York Islanders in the second round with a 4-0 victory in Game 5 at Amalie Arena on Sunday after eliminating the Detroit Red Wings in the first round in five games.

The Lightning set out to stay alive long enough for Stralman and Stamkos to return, and now they could have at least Stralman back for the conference final, making them even more formidable contenders. Coach Jon Cooper said he hoped Stralman would be ready for Game 4 or 5 of the second round. He wasn't, but Cooper said there had been no setback. Stamkos is harder to gauge because of the nature of his injury, but he's within the window. You never know.

"Everything was, 'OK, this is devastating to deal with this but it's not over,'" Cooper said. "Because those guys are such important parts to our team, it just kind of became our mantra. Our season is not over without these guys being able to step on the ice and dictate when it's over. Guys are really buying into that."

It's a great story and it starts at the beginning. After making the Stanley Cup Final last year, coming within two wins of a championship after playing 26 out of 28 possible games, the Lightning struggled at the start of the regular season. They were 7-8-2 on Nov. 10. They were 19-17-4 on Jan. 5.

"Probably not as engaged in the regular season as we should have been," Cooper said.

Video: NYI@TBL, Gm5: Hedman blasts PPG past Greiss

Key players missed time because of injuries: defenseman Jason Garrison, forwards Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat. And forward Jonathan Drouin, the third pick of the 2013 NHL Draft, wasn't even on the roster. He asked to be traded, refused to play for Syracuse of the American Hockey League and was suspended.

"In a weird way it was a refocus for us, and now we have to survive without important players on this team," Cooper said. "Obviously it's not ideal to have the likes of a Stamkos and a Stralman on the sideline, but I think a year of preparation of injuries probably helped our mindset."

The Lightning didn't finish the regular season strong. They went 7-9-1 in their last 17 games, 3-5-0 in their last eight. But they have clicked so well in the first two rounds that you wouldn't know Stralman and Stamkos were missing. They're incomplete but look complete anyway because they have so much depth, especially now that Drouin, who returned to Syracuse and was recalled after Stamkos had surgery, has started to display his talent.

Start in goal. Ben Bishop is a Vezina Trophy finalist who not only stops the puck but moves it, diffusing forechecks, beginning breakouts. He has a 1.89 goals-against average and .938 save percentage in the postseason, third among goalies remaining. He has two shutouts, tied for first, each in closeout games.

Video: NYI@TBL, Gm5: Bishop makes spectacular pad save

Look at the defense. Victor Hedman is the clear leader. He logs minutes and makes plays all over the ice, and he has been no less aggressive without Stralman, his usual steady partner. Garrison scored an overtime goal in Game 4 against the Islanders. Cooper has so many options; he has played eight defensemen in these playoffs and often dressed seven at a time.

Now, the forwards. There are scorers: Nikita Kucherov (nine goals, first in the NHL), Johnson (13 points, second in the NHL), Alex Killorn (nine points), Drouin (nine points). There are gritty veterans: Boyle, Ryan Callahan. There are defensive stalwarts: Palat, Valtteri Filppula.

"All year we knew we had a good team," Callahan said. "Obviously some very key guys are out of our lineup right now. It's an opportunity for other guys to step up and step in and maybe play some more minutes, and guys have taken advantage of that."

Yes, the Lightning had arguably the easiest bracket in the Atlantic Division and will have to be better in the conference final, whether they play the Pittsburgh Penguins or the Washington Capitals. But advancing in 10 games is impressive, especially under the circumstances. They can be even better, especially if they get Stralman, Stamkos or both back.

"They're leaders of our team, core guys who do so much for us," Boyle said. "To go down, they can't help us. On a personal level you feel for those guys. Everyone did a pretty good job of stepping up and trying to elevate their game for the rest of the guys, but for them too. We want to keep playing here as long as we can."

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