As the halfway point of the 2011-2012 season nears, things haven’t changed much for the Tampa Bay Lightning, who are 15-17-3. They’re still losing, and at least one of their goaltenders is still having problems keeping the puck out of the net.
On Tuesday — at least for the short-term — it got worse.
Top-two defensemen Victor Hedman and Eric Brewer went down with injuries in Tuesday’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers. The Lightning won 5-1, but the loss of those key players is going to force the team to make adjustments to the lineup.
The Lightning are quickly running out of bodies on the blue line with Mattias Ohlund (knee) and Matt Gilroy (lower body) also injured. With the team already on shaky ground, the addition of call-ups from the American Hockey League could make the road ahead even more difficult.
Coach Guy Boucher is hoping that the adversity will actually help the team.
"(Losing players to injury) keeps on happening here," Boucher told the Tampa Bay Times Tuesday. "It’s been a concern since the summer when Ohlund wasn’t here; that was disastrous for us. And we keep on having adversity over adversity since the beginning of the year. It’s OK, it builds character."
The Lightning got some good news Wednesday, learning that Brewer is fine and only needed some stitches to close a cut, and he will not miss any games. However, if Hedman is going to miss a lot of time, the Lightning’s other defensemen are going to have to make up for his huge role on the team.
Hedman has the second-highest average ice time on the team, more than 22 minutes a game. He’s a key member of the penalty-kill unit, spending almost four minutes of his average game time playing against opposing power plays.
With Hedman out, Boucher has had to alter his systems to accommodate the situation. The Lightning will likely call up a defenseman from their AHL club (Evan Oberg, who has been on several call-ups this year, is a likely candidate), but Boucher said that’s not the only way to compensate for the loss of an important blue-liner.
"What you’ve got to do is see it a different way," Boucher told the Tampa Bay Times. "As a younger coach, I used to think you’ll replace guys for a little while. You’ve got to go with the strengths of other guys. You can’t put the pressure on the other guys to do whatever those guys were doing."
Defenseman Pavel Kubina, who averages more than 18 minutes per game, said he expects shorter shifts to compensate for a likely increase in ice time. In addition, Boucher’s forwards will also be expected to play more defensively in Hedman’s absence.
With so much uncertainty in front of the net, thankfully, the worry over Tampa’s goaltending has somewhat lessened recently. Mathieu Garon effectively took over as the No. 1 goaltender for the Lightning weeks ago but has steadily improved.
Excepting a disastrous outing against San Jose Dec. 21, Garon is performing admirably in the crease, 3-1-1 in his last five games, while Dwayne Roloson continues to warm the bench. Not including his .625 save percentage against the Sharks, Garon averaged a .920 save percentage over that span. Roloson, meanwhile, is riding a four-game losing streak, and hasn’t started a game since Dec. 5.
"Mathieu has been very good for us," goaltending coach Frantz Jean told the Tampa Bay Times. "He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do. He shows up every day for work and is a very positive influence in the room. We’re very happy with what he’s done up to now."
While the rest of the roster is in flux with injuries, Garon at least remains a stable force in the net. As Garon told the Times, "The only pressure I see is our team has to win games."
Southeast Division notes:
Also banged up are the Florida Panthers, who have lost three of their last five games, and in the last week lost Stephen Weiss to an upper body injury. The Panthers now have seven forwards out with injuries. But help may come in the form of John Madden, who is reportedly negotiating a contract with the Panthers. A Stanley Cup winner in 2010 with Chicago, Madden is another player familiar with former Blackhawks and current Panthers GM Dale Tallon. "We’re kicking the tires to see who’s out there who can help us because of our injuries," Tallon told the Sun Sentinel Wednesday. "At worst (Madden) could be a fourth-line center for us when everybody comes back." … The Washington Capitals didn’t have a great Christmas week, losing their games immediately before and after Christmas, but roared back with great play against the New York Rangers for a 4-1 home win. Tomas Vokoun made 31 saves in the win, and told media that the spirited play was a result of the Capitals playing with emotion. "We executed the game plan we had," Vokoun said. "We wanted to be physical and play simple hockey. We did that for the most part. When we do that, we are usually successful." Marcus Johansson scored his first goal in 20 games, and Alexander Semin scored two goals. He has scored four goals in his last five games. … G Justin Peters made his first NHL start since March on Tuesday, and put in an amazing 48-save performance against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Peters managed to keep the Penguins off the board in the first period, despite a 16-shot barrage in those first 20 minutes. But he didn’t get much help from his defensemen, and the Hurricanes lost 4-2. "He looked confident, and I thought he had a really good game for us," coach Kirk Muller told reporters. … The Hurricanes remain without Jeff Skinner and Joni Pitkanen, who are still suffering from concussion symptoms. The team confirmed Wednesday that there is no timeline for either player’s return. For the moment, both will stay on the shelf, as neither have been cleared for activity by doctors. … The Winnipeg Jets bookended their Christmas break with 4-1 scores against Pittsburgh and Colorado – a loss Friday to the Penguins and a win Tuesday over the Avalanche. By beating Colorado, the Jets moved into the Eastern Conference’s Top 8 for the first time all season. "It means a lot to us to finally get above the (playoff) line," coach Claude Noel told the Winnipeg Free Press. "For us it’s good, but our focus will be winning the next game at home, and then we’ll go from there. Hopefully we can stay above the line. That’s going to be the key for us."