Ask the Tampa Bay Lightning about how much an injury can hurt a team as they head toward the playoffs. They know all about it.
Last season, when goaltender Ben Bishop went down with a hand injury just days before the playoffs began, it destroyed any hopes the Lightning may have had in their first round series against the Montreal Canadiens. Montreal swept Tampa Bay in four games, and the Lightning headed home much earlier than some had expected. That’s why Lightning fans are probably counting their lucky stars on Tuesday.
Following practice today in Boston, as the Lightning prepare to take on the Bruins in their second game in two nights, coach Jon Cooper said both breakout forward Tyler Johnson and defensive gem Victor Hedmanwill be on the shelf, “day-to-day.” The pair left Monday's game against the Philadelphia Flyers with injuries -- Hedman in the first with a lower body injury, and Johnson in the second with the same. As such, you can forgive Tampa Bay fans if they’re breathing a bit easier this afternoon. After all, if anyone knows just how costly an injury can be, it’s the Bolts and their fans.
While it may seem absurd that the loss of a sophomore center would have such an effect on the team, Johnson has been nothing short of a superstar for the Lightning this season. All the while Hedman, the second overall selection in the 2009 draft, is having his own coming out party. So, yes, Lightning fans had reason to be concerned, even with half a season left. You never know when a serious injury can hit.
Johnson, who has been praised for the things he’s doing with and away from the puck, has continued to be a revelation, but it’s worrisome to think what may have happened to one of the best lines in hockey had he gone down for any significant amount of time. Johnson’s pairing with Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat has been taking on the team’s toughest competition – Johnson, the center, facing the most difficult – and driving possession incredibly well.
When you remove the center from the equation, you risk losing one of the league’s most effective lines. Kucherov’s underlying numbers without Johnson show that he’s still helping drive play, but is present on the ice for goals against far more often. As for Palat, possession and goals for percentage generally go as Johnson goes.
And, more than just breaking up Tampa Bay’s most effective line, losing Johnson would strip the Lightning’s second penalty kill unit of their pivot, forcing Cooper’s hand into putting one of his more offensive players into a position he's not well suited to. Teams can live with a power play that doesn’t click, but a penalty kill that can’t kill penalties puts a team in peril.
As for Hedman, his pairing with Anton Stralman has been outstanding for Tampa Bay. Together they take on the toughest competition, eat up more ice time, and drive possession at a considerable rate. Stralman, a star in his own right, has been even better than many would have expected alongside Hedman, and the pairing is a big part of Tampa Bay’s success this season.
Were the Lightning to lose Hedman for a significant amount of time, it would, like losing Johnson on the penalty kill, throw a wrench into the power play. Hedman helps quarterback the top unit and has seven power play points, the most among Lightning defenseman, in little more than half the games of his teammates.
The Lightning could have been sneaky contenders last season, but in 2014-15, they’re top of the heap and will head into the playoffs with high hopes and higher expectations. The last thing they needed was an untimely injury to hurt their chances, and they’re lucky to escape this most recent scare with little more than a few days without two key contributors.