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First Hedman, now Palat: How will injuries impact suddenly struggling Lightning?

The Lightning, mired in a three-game slump, got bad news Monday when Ondrej Palat was ruled out through the all-star break with no timeline for his return.

Until recently, there were few blemishes on the Tampa Bay Lightning’s record. They have long sat atop both the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference, only recently gave up top spot in the entire NHL and have had two of their stars, Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy, pacing the respective Hart and Vezina Trophy races for much of the campaign. But for the first time all season, it appears the seemingly infallible Lightning are beginning to show some cracks in their armor, punctuated Saturday with a loss to the Minnesota Wild.

The defeat at the hands of the Wild was notable in terms of the Lightning’s struggles for a few reasons. First, it marked the fourth consecutive outing and fifth time in six games in which Tampa Bay had surrendered at least four goals. It also saw Tampa Bay drop three straight contests for the first time all season. But the loss also put the Lightning in a situation few thought possible when they were running roughshod over the competition across the first half of the season: in the midst of a legitimate struggle while boasting the league’s worst slump. The three consecutive losses makes for the worst losing streak going and gave Tampa Bay a substandard 4-5-1 record over their past 10 games.

The recent lack of success is of course made worse by the loss of Victor Hedman, whose injury in a contest against the Calgary Flames not-so-coincidentally coincides with the Lightning’s three-game losing streak. But Tampa Bay got an extra dose of bad news Monday when Ondrej Palat, who fell injured following a stick jab to the back of the leg by Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon, was sent back to Tampa Bay and ruled out through the all-star break with no timeline for his return, according to the Tampa Bay Times’ Joe Smith. And the potential long-term loss of Palat paired with the already three-to-six week absence of Hedman makes for a tricky situation for the Lightning, particularly in their own end.

Losing Hedman, a legitimate Norris Trophy candidate, was no doubt a blow to Tampa Bay defensively. However, the benefit of having a bright young star such as Mikhail Sergachev and a No. 2 on the blueline in Anton Stralman is that the Lightning have, at least in a pinch, what appears to be a pairing capable of taking top minutes in Hedman’s absence. The difficulty when it comes to Palat, though, is that there’s no skater who can effectively fill his role as a two-way, shutdown winger.

This season, Palat has consistently been the forward most relied upon by coach Jon Cooper to take on the other team’s top skaters, as evidenced by the Lightning winger boasting the highest quality of competition among Tampa Bay forwards. Better than taking on those minutes, though, Palat had been effective in nullifying the opposition’s offensive impact. Per Corsica, Palat’s rate of 1.88 goals against per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 is the third-best mark among Lightning forwards who’ve skated at least 500 minutes. As impressive is that his 3.47 goals for per 60 minutes is second-best among that same group. And while his possession numbers don’t sparkle, his expected goals for percentage is among the team’s best. Top skaters aren’t producing quality opportunities against Palat, while he’s managing to generate chances of his own.

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The Lightning being without their top defensive forward is no small deal, either, particularly when they’ve been mired in their worst defensive slump of the campaign. In fact, the recent run of defeats in which Tampa Bay has surrendered four or more belies the fact they have the fourth-best goals-against-per-game rate in the NHL. And the loss of another defensive asset comes at a time when some woes in their own end appear to be creeping in for the Lightning and their once-dominant advanced metrics seem to be coming down to earth.

Consider that pre-holiday break, Tampa Bay’s rating, adjust for score and venue at 5-on-5, was either first or second in Corsi for, scoring chances for, high-danger chances for and goals for percentage. Though it’s a much smaller sample — roughly one-third of the size — that simply hasn’t been the case since the Lightning return from holiday. In those same categories post-break, Tampa Bay ranks 10th in Corsi for percentage, eighth in scoring chances for percentage,12th in high-danger chances for percentage and 12th in goals for percentage. The decreases in each respective category have been notable, too. The Lightning’s Corsi for percentage has dipped by 1.7 percent, scoring chances for by 3.2 percent, high-danger chances by 4.3 percent and goals for percentage by 8.5 percent. Those figures don’t stand to improve much with Hedman and Palat on the shelf.

If there is a sliver of good news in all of this, though, it’s that the absences of Palat and Hedman at a time when the Lightning are showing some defensive deficiencies may give Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman a clearer picture of what he needs to add in order to put his team over the top. Entering the season, there were murmurs the Lightning could look to improve on the back end, and while the emergence of Sergachev and off-season addition of Dan Girardi has added some depth, Yzerman could further understand exactly what type of player he wants to bring aboard. The same goes for Palat’s absence, which could lead Yzerman to search for another defensively responsible middle-six winger who can bolster Tampa Bay’s defensive play.

For the time being, though, the Lightning will seek to snap their skid and get back to the forefront of the Presidents’ Trophy race, and they’ll have to do so without the use of two key defensive pieces.

UPDATE: Palat will be sidelined six-to-eight weeks, per Smith.

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