Beginning this recap with something other than a cliche has been immensely difficult for me.
"When it rains, it pours."
"Can't replace a player like that."
"The show must go on."
"Next man up."
"Adding insult to injury".
"Everyone has to step up and contribute to fill the void."
All of them were true today during a 3-0 matinee loss to the Boston Bruins at TD Garden, a game that saw the injury-free Tampa Bay Lightning finally face some bad fortune, losing Steven Stamkos, Sami Salo, and Keith Aulie to injury in the same game.
Stamkos and Salo were injured just seconds apart in the second period.
Prior to the injuries, in the first period, the Lightning were put back on their heels early as the Bruins roared out to a big lead in puck possession, shots, and shot attempts. The Lightning were routinely hemmed in their own zone as the Bruins gained entry into the Tampa zone with ease and kept the puck there for long stretches.
Only some terrific early play by goaltender Anders Lindback, who got the nod on the opening half of a back-to-back with the Montreal Canadiens looming tomorrow in Quebec, kept the score 0-0 as the Lightning really escaped the 1st period without a deficit. Jarome Iginla got the best chance for the Bruins in the first, ringing a hard shot off the post.
The Lightning finally started to execute better in the middle frame, getting some more work around Bruins netminder Tuukka Rask and evening up the shot count, when Stamkos went down after getting tangled up with Boston defender Dougie Hamilton on a hard drive towards the Tampa net.
Replays showed Stamkos' leg bending backwards, but that didn't stop him from trying to stand up anyways. He quickly collapsed and smashed his fist into the ice in an agonizing show of frustration that only the most hyper-competitive athletes are capable of when something outside of their control derails their ability to compete.
With Stamkos stretchered off and transported to a local hospital for treatment and evaluation, the game continued, only to see Sami Salo helped towards the bench with what is being reported as a "lower body injury". On the ensuing play, Brad Marchand carried the puck into the Tampa zone and waited before finding Torey Krug for a shot from the point. A net-front scramble followed, with Patrice Bergeron won, finding the loose puck in front of Lindback and giving the Bruins a 1-0 lead.
The timing of the goal suggests the obvious -- the Lightning bench was deflated by the loss of Stamkos, a leader in almost every statistical category, and a leader in the locker room.
Just 20 short seconds after Bergeron's goal, the shellshocked Lightning gave up another, this one to Daniel Paille. Keith Aulie (who would later leave for the locker room himself) misread a play at the attacking blue line. Flat-footed and with the puck behind him, Paille and Shawn Thornton skated in on Lindback in a 2-on-1 situation. Eric Brewer did well to shut off the passing lane to Thornton, allowing Lindback to focus on the shooter, but with Brewer focused on the pass option, Paille made a quick move in tight and backhanded the puck into the net to manufacture a 2-0 Boston lead likely before Stamkos had even been carted out of the arena.
Aulie's injury came in the third period, leaving Jon Cooper with just 15 healthy skaters on his bench to finish the game. While Tampa Bay managed chances throughout the afternoon, registering 28 shots on Rask, they never solved him as Rask completed his second shutout of the year, both against the Lightning. In three games played, the Bolts have solved Rask just one time, and that was on a "once a year" type offensive play from Eric Brewer to Valtteri Filppula.
Jarome Iginla added an empty netter with less than a minute to go to make the final score 3-0.
In lieu of the typical game notes, I leave you with some final thoughts on the Stamkos injury:
The upswelling of support from all of hockey fandom has been inspiring. It makes you realize just how transcendent an athlete like Stamkos is, not just for his on-ice heroics but for his off-ice demeanor. This is the player who got a standing ovation in Winnipeg, a city that had only just got their hockey team back. That city, whose franchise had been torched repeatedly by Stamkos in recent seasons, could do nothing but stand and cheer when he scored his 60th goal in the last game of the regular season in 2012:
He's also the player that won the respect of many Boston hockey fans after taking a Johnny Boychuk slap shot to the face in Game 7 of the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals, breaking his nose, only to return to the game later:
Steven Stamkos is, perhaps alongside Martin St. Louis, the closest thing the NHL has to a universally loved superstar. While Sidney Crosby is still referred to as Cindy, and Alex Ovechkin's masculinity is also routinely called into question, Steven Stamkos just carries on with his business. That his injury occurred on a hard, defensive backcheck is only fitting.
Even the NHL.com game recap for tonight's match -- usually a treacherous quagmire of trolling and ignorance and unfounded criticism -- is littered with support and well-wishes for Stamkos, from fans with almost every team logo next to their names.
All of this highlights that losing Stamkos for what looks like quite a long time not a blow not just to the Lightning, but to the league and its fans, and to hockey in general.