Injury-riddled Bolts fighting, clawing for every point

TAMPA, Fla. — If Tuesday’s shootout loss to the Washington Capitals was a knife in the back, a blow to the gut that knocked out all wind, then Thursday’s shootout victory for the Tampa Bay Lightning was the extreme opposite.

It was the balm that soothed the sting.

Search hard for a more painful way to lose a game than the Bolts did at Verizon Center, the sight of a sadistic mix of shock, heartache and heartbreak. They scored the first three goals, outshot the Eastern Conference foe 42-31 and gave up four scores in regulation to one player, winger and wizard on the ice, Alex Ovechkin.

The 6-5 loss in the District, Tampa Bay’s fourth in five games, cut deep. Then Thursday happened.

“I know we gave up five goals in Washington, but we played pretty well,” Bolts coach Jon Cooper said Thursday, after winger Marty St. Louis scored the lone shootout goal to lift Tampa Bay past the Detroit Red Wings 2-1 at Tampa Bay Times Forum.

“We put up 40-plus shots. … Sometimes, you keep playing that way, (and) it’s hockey karma. It’s going to come your way at some point, and I thought (Thursday) it came our way.”

Let’s face it: No game in December is a must-win. The Lightning have four months left to learn about themselves, to discover what makes them tick in this life after Steven Stamkos’ injury.

They’ll learn, in time, whether their young superstar will return from his right tibia fracture before season’s end. They’ll learn, in time, if they have the stomach to succeed without him. They’ll learn, in time, if his loss is too much to overcome to be a real postseason threat.

But the claw-from-behind victory Thursday was needed, for an emotional pick-me-up if nothing else.

Since Stamkos was carted off Nov. 11 in Boston, the Bolts have been dragged down to reality after living a brief high: A 3-8 record since Nov. 16, a run that included a four-game losing skid from Nov. 16-22, and only one instance of consecutive wins, Nov. 25 against the New York Rangers and Nov. 27 against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Points will be at a premium. The Bolts know this. If they want to survive to see the postseason it’s take’em however you can get’em.

“I thought we played pretty good in Washington,” said Bolts goalie Ben Bishop, who made 28 saves Thursday. “If we don’t take a penalty, we probably win that game. I don’t think it was a setback in (Washington). But I think we deserved better if we stayed out of the box. (Thursday), we stayed out of the box and stepped up after a tough game in Washington. Big win.”

Bigger even when considering a larger picture. In addition to Stamkos’ injury, it has been well-documented how a Band-Aid may soon need to be placed over the Bolts’ logo.

As recent as Dec. 5, nine players were injured with various scrapes. Stamkos is the headliner of Tampa Bay’s Legion of Scars, but the Bolts must find a way to survive their hobble through this prickly patch in the schedule.

By all accounts, however this situation is sliced, it’s a good news/bad news thing.

The good: The Lightning had built a comfy 12-4 mark before Stamkos’ injury blew their momentum. They are 6-6-3 since the incident, and their 39 points place them in fourth place in the Eastern Conference.

The bad: How long will the endurance last? Seeing the Lightning without Stamkos, at times, feels like watching a tightrope walker wobble over the Grand Canyon with one good leg.

The Bolts are a different team than they were before Nov. 11. They still benefit from solid goal-tending — Bishop is a strong 16-5-2 with a 93.1 save percentage — but they lack Stamkos’ quick-strike potential. Before the offensive outburst at Washington, they were held to one or no goals in three of their past four games.

“I feel that we hang in there, and we find ways,” St. Louis said Thursday. “That’s what we’ve done. That’s really the bottom line. When you wake up tomorrow, you’re already past. You’ve moved forward. A few weeks from now, that game (against Detroit) is going to be a win. We’re not going to dissect it.”

There’s no need, because the result will blend into the season soon enough. Points, as with all teams, will determine this squad’s legacy, in addition to Cooper’s in his first full season here.

As long as Stamkos is out, Tampa Bay should make no apologies for how points are earned. The Red Wings, led by goalie Jonas Gustavsson’s 26 saves, played well enough to win in regulation.

Still, winger Nikita Kucherov slipped the puck in the net during the second period’s final minute, lifting Tampa Bay to a 1-all tie. The third period and overtime passed without incident. Then St. Louis worked his shootout magic.

Fight. Force the opponent out of a comfort zone. Figure out a way to do it again and again.

“We want to make the playoffs,” Cooper said. “That’s it. That’s what we want to do. We want to get to the tournament. The big silver cup, you can’t win that unless you get to the tournament. Our goal is getting there. But you have to keep accumulating points. You have to snuff losing streaks. You can’t let them mount.”

The losing streak was short-lived thanks to Thursday night after one of the season’s most painful defeats.

In a winter with plenty of sting, this result was sweet.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.