They’re trying their best, but a black cloud this ominous isn’t easily chased away.
This isn’t fantasy hockey, so the Tampa Bay Lightning have no choice but to plod onward without Steven Stamkos, who was the NHL’s joint leading scorer until he needed to have his shattered right shin repaired by surgeons in Boston on Tuesday.
Young guys will step up and the team game will improve, the defensive structure will endure, and, hey, he only plays 20 minutes a night anyway – don’t the others play 40?
It’s as if comfort can be derived from the usual clichés in situations like this, but the tacitly admitted fact is this: Losing a player of Stamkos’s stature can’t be glossed over.
The Lightning have thumbed their noses at the prognosticators that had tabbed them, as head coach Jon Cooper said, “a team that other teams pass on the way to the playoffs,” and they sat atop the Eastern Conference entering Tuesday’s games.
But promising seasons are easily derailed, and in a league where the margin between winning and losing is punishingly thin, removing a guy who has 14 goals in 17 games – 27 per cent of the team’s total output – hurts badly.
“You don’t replace that loss, but we can try and deal with it and play well and carry on,” defenceman Eric Brewer said before a game Tuesday at the Bell Centre against the Montreal Canadiens.
For most regularly-constituted humans, the worst thing about losing a beloved teammate to a freak collision with a goalpost under innocuous circumstances – “a routine backcheck,” Brewer said – might be the feeling of helplessness that follows.
Snugly behind in second place would be metabolizing the injustice of it all – the temptation is strong to shake an angry fist at the vengeful deity that allowed this to happen.
Asked what he can do to forestall the possibility of teammates feeling sorry for themselves now that their all-world goal-scorer – since 2009-10, he has scored a league-best 199 times – is out, ageless Lightning captain Martin St. Louis said: “I go play as hard as I can. It’s all I can do.”
St. Louis is one of only three current Tampa players who remember the last time Stamkos sat out an NHL game.
That was in 2008-09, Stamkos’s rookie season, when the first-overall draft choice from 2008 was scratched for three games by then-coach Rick Tocchet.
“I think he was still feeling his way and the staff as well, they didn’t want to put so much pressure on the first-overall pick … as I remember, he still found a way to score 22 goals in his first year, in half a season,” St. Louis recalled. (Stamkos actually scored 23.)
So what is to be done?
“I have to take charge, show the path, and, hopefully, everybody follows,” St. Louis said.
There will also be questions about whether more can be done to make goalposts like the one Stamkos smashed his right leg into in Boston safer.
A league official said the NHL’s new, shallower nets use an identical flexible mooring system to the one that’s been in use since 1991 – the NHL experimented with magnets after Hartford Whalers defenceman Mark Howe impaled himself on a fixed goalpost mount in December of 1980, then went to the current equipment – and it performed as it is designed to do.
It appears Stamkos, who was jostling with Boston Bruins defenceman Dougie Hamilton when he slid into the net, was just exceedingly unlucky.
Cooper is left to push the usual psychological buttons. “Everyone in our dressing room is saying, ‘Let’s prove to everybody that we’re not a fluke,’ ” he said.