Despite injuries and deadline fire sale, Lightning pull themselves into playoff race

The Lightning can’t be blamed for a bit of scoreboard watching as they have gone on a 7-0-1 run since the trade deadline and are back in the playoff hunt.

OTTAWA – Unlike most NHL buildings, the Canadian Tire Centre – or whatever they’re calling the arena in suburban Ottawa this week – runs a fairly steady stream of out-of-town scores at the bottom of the main scoreboard. And we all know how often players look up at that these days. Which is what made Victor Hedman’s (lack of) observation that much more interesting.

“I didn’t know that. Seriously,” Hedman said moments after giving the Tampa Bay Lightning another crucial win with the overtime goal in a 3-2 win over the Ottawa Senators Tuesday night. “I’ll look after the game, but other than that I don’t pay too much attention to it.”

Anyone who knows Hedman would also know to not even bother to turn on the B.S. meter because he’s telling the truth. The way Lightning coach Jon Cooper sees it, that’s a good thing because it means his team is engaged in the task at hand and not putting any energy into something over which they have no control. But Cooper couldn’t say the same thing for himself.

“I’ll be honest, I get pissed when I look and I see the (out-of-town) scores,” Cooper said. “So I had to stop looking at the scoreboard because they were showing it every single time. I had to look elsewhere to see how much time was left on the clock. (Scoreboard watching) you just get ahead of yourself.”

That the Lightning are even in a position to steal a peek at the out-of-town scores is remarkable considering their laundry list of maladies and the depths from which they’ve emerged. It wasn’t long ago that the Lightning were last in the Eastern Conference and it was two weeks ago that GM Steve Yzerman was holding a fire sale, trading Brian Boyle, Ben Bishop and Valtteri Filppula in a series of deals aimed at addressing two crunches. One was the salary cap crunch the team faced. The other was bolstering the Syracuse Crunch, the Lightning’s AHL affiliate. But the Lightning have gone 7-0-1 since trade deadline day and woke up this morning tied in points with the New York Islanders for the second wildcard spot in the Eastern Conference, just sitting on the outside by virtue of the fact the Islanders have two more regulation and overtime wins.

So the Lightning played their most important game of the season Tuesday night against Ottawa, until they face the Toronto Maple Leafs Thursday night in what will be the biggest game of the season.

“It’s another Game 7,” Hedman said.

If the Lightning do make the playoffs, they’ll be a tough out because of their experience and the fact they will have played so many Game 7-like games down the stretch. But there we go getting ahead of ourselves again. The Lightning prefer to revel in the here and now and enjoy what they are accomplishing with a bottom-nine group of forwards that has one full-time NHL player on it.

“It’s almost like the guys who have been down that road for us the past couple of years are going to lead the way and the new guys coming up aren’t going to let them down,” Cooper said. “That’s kind of working for us. It’s bad enough that we’ve lost Steven Stamkos as a centerman, but we’ve proceeded to lose just about everyone after that. But he’s on his way back.”

Of course, the ubiquitous Steven Stamkos, who has been out since the middle of November with a knee injury. They’re going to get Stamkos back at some point, but there is no specific timetable for his return. Cooper joked that Stamkos was originally projected to be out four-to-six months and the four-month mark is today, “so he’s coming back in the next two.”

Stamkos is practicing and travelling with the Lightning, but has not even be cleared for contact in practice, which means he’s a minimum of a week away from playing games. But imagine the boost when he does return to the lineup. It does create a fine line the Lightning must toe. On one hand, boy could they use him and his goal scoring talents as they desperately try to gain a playoff berth down the stretch. But he’s also the face of the franchise, one that is under contract for another seven years after this season, so the long-term health is a huge issue and rushing him back to chase the last playoff spot would be foolhardy.

“The one way to make sure he may play is to get into the playoffs,” Cooper said. “Until doctors and Steven Stamkos say, ‘I’m ready to go,’ he’s not going on the ice. But I know that Steven Stamkos is working his tail off to get back as fast as he can. He’s not going to be the one who says, ‘I’m not going on.’ It’s going to be a doctor that’s going to tell him he can’t go on.”