It isn’t an unusual position for the Tampa Bay Lightning, but it is one they loathe to be in. Yet again, they’re without captain Steven Stamkos for an extended period of time.
Stamkos tore his right lateral meniscus during the first period against the Detroit Red Wings on Nov. 15, and had successful surgery to repair the tear. However, at the time of his injury, he was the team’s leading scorer, and the recovery time for his injury will be at least four months.
So how does this Lightning team look so far without their captain?
The Lightning went on to win their game against the Red Wings after losing Stamkos, as well as three of their next four games, including two match-ups against the Philadelphia Flyers. In those four games, they outscored opponents 12-6.
In their seven games without Stamkos, a handful of players have stepped up. Forward Ondrej Palat, who had seven points in the first 17 games with Stamkos, has six points (two goals, four assists) in the seven games without him. Center Brayden Point is another player who has stepped up, going from five points in the first 17 games to six points in his last seven. 32-year-old veteran center Valtteri Filppula also has six points in seven games, and Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov, two top-six forwards, have five points apiece in their last seven games.
Johnson has also stepped up in shots on goal, going from averaging 1.71 shots per game to nearly three per game since Stamkos’ injury. Defenseman Andrei Sustr has also taken strides in the shooting department, averaging exactly one shot per game through the first 17 games to 17 shots in his last seven games.
The power play has continued to succeed, only dropping from 23.9 percent to 23.5 percent while remaining the fourth-best power play in the NHL. They also have 20 power play goals this season, which is the second best behind the Philadelphia Flyers (21).
However, it isn’t all rainbows and butterflies.
The Lightning have now dropped a season-high three games in a row to Eastern Conference opponents and have a losing 3-4-0 record in their seven games without “Stammer.” They have given up at least 30 shots in every game and have been outshot by a 232-196 margin in that seven game span. The Lightning have also given up 14 goals in their three-game slide.
The Lightning have needed guys like forwards Jonathan Drouin and Cedric Paquette to step up and contribute. For a forward who is averaging 18 minutes per game, Drouin should be contributing more than the two points he posted in his last seven games. 23-year-old Pacquette, while still young, also needs to take advantage of his extra ice time, but he has not posted a point since Stamkos’ injury.
In the midst of it all, there has been a big debate over who should start in goal: Ben Bishop or Andrei Vasilevskiy. While it is nice to be able to split goaltending duties, it is another inconsistency the team has had to deal with.
This team knows how much of an impact Stamkos has on their success, and are well aware of what the road ahead to make the playoffs this season will take. At this point, one wonders when the Lightning will make some sort of move to address their shortcomings on offense, as well as their lack of defensive depth.
Center Brian Boyle acknowledged his team’s lackadaisical effort on defense as of late after Tuesday night’s 5-1 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“I’d love to play against us right now in our own end — it’s easy,” Boyle said. “We’ve relied on our goalies, they’ve been phenomenal. They’re great teammates because they haven’t ripped into us yet for how we’re treating them, for how we’re defending.”
After the same game, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said his team is searching for their identity without their captain, and his offensive prowess, at the helm.
“We’ve got to find ourselves, we’ve lost a little bit of our identity,” Cooper said. “We can’t sit here and think we’re going to walk into a game and get three or four [goals]. That 2-1 mentality has to return. It all comes down to defending, and right now we’re not defending with the passion we need to.”
For now, the Tampa Bay Lightning still sit above 0.500 when they are without their captain — 38-30-5 in 73 games — since the 2013-14 season. But with at least three more months to go before he possibly returns, the Lightning need to figure out what, and how, their team plays without Stamkos.