The Tampa Bay Lightning took a big blow when Nikita Kucherov was injured on a crosscheck that had nothing to do with playing hockey. He tried to play on through the shift, but ultimately left as soon as the whistle blew. We have no update on him yet as I write this, and I don’t particularly expect to get one before tomorrow, and possibly even up to game time. I don’t want to speculate too much on what the injury could be, but it was clear that the cross check was delivered forcefully to an unpadded spot in his midsection.
Losing Kucherov isn’t the reason the Lightning lost last night, but it was still a blow for the game and for Game Seven coming up tomorrow night. It especially showed on the power play, which looked anemic with Kucherov not over on the right wing to distribute the puck and threaten a shot. If Kucherov can’t go for Game Seven, then Jon Cooper will have to make a decision on how to move forward without him.
11 Forwards, 7 Defensemen
The Lightning have already been dealing with an injury on the blue line with Erik Cernak missing the last two games after being injured on a late hit by Matt Martin. Luke Schenn has stepped into the line up to replace him. The Lightning spent essentially the entire game last night without Kucherov, and parts of it without Ross Colton after he got dinged up on a late hit by Matt Martin.
For the first period, Cooper did a lot of line blendering. We saw Tyler Johnson, Anthony Cirelli, Steven Stamkos, and Yanni Gourde all take shifts on the first line. We also saw some shifts where Yanni Gourde and Blake Coleman took shifts on the second line after a Cirelli or Stamkos shift on the first line. We even saw a shift or two where Ross Colton took over Gourde’s spot between Barclay Goodrow and Coleman on the third line when Tyler Johnson didn’t.
Cooper settled down in the second and third period though with Cirelli taking a more full time spot on the first line after assisting on Point’s goal in the first period and picking up a goal of his own in the second period. From there, Gourde mostly filled in on the second line, but also took shifts on the third line when Colton or Johnson didn’t take his spot.
If Cooper decides to go back to his old safety blanket and reduce the ice time of Luke Schenn by bringing in Cal Foote or Ben Thomas, then he could stick with the eleven forward assignments. Move Cirelli to the first line, Gourde to the second line, and Colton or Johnson to the third line, while Maroon and the other of Colton and Johnson get a rotating right winger.
Bringing A Forward In
No matter which way Cooper goes, if he brings anyone into the line up, it’s going to be quite a while since they’ve played, whether it’s a defenseman or a forward. Mathieu Joseph is the most sensible choice since he played a couple games in the Florida Panthers series while Barclay Goodrow was injured. Joseph has speed and can get in on the forecheck. He’d likely take a spot on the fourth line with Colton or Johnson moving up to the third line. If Cooper wanted to get really spicy, he could put Joseph on the second line with Stamkos moving back to center and Alex Killorn on the other side.
Cooper could also turn to Mitchell Stephens who played in seven playoff games during last season’s run with one goal. Stephens didn’t play much this year after injuring his knee early in the season which required surgery. He played seven NHL games and four AHL games. His offensive game really shined in those AHL rehab games, but he’s yet to really put up much offense in the NHL in his limited playing time. Stephens would give the Lightning a little bit more defensive responsibility in the bottom of the line up, as well as a player that can win some faceoffs. So far in his NHL career, Stephens has won 53.4% of his faceoffs. Steven Stamkos has been the only Lightning player that has consistently won faceoffs during this series.
If Cooper wants a little more offensive pop, then he could turn to Alex Barre-Boulet to make his NHL playoffs debut. Barre-Boulet was given a golden opportunity during the regular season playing in Kucherov’s spot on the first line with Point and Palat. While they had good possession statistics together, Barre-Boulet wasn’t able to translate that into points, recording just three goals in fifteen games. This would be a very big spot to put Barre-Boulet in, and it’d be asking a lot of him being a smaller guy, with average skating, in a series that’s been pretty physical, especially if Cooper gave him the opportunity to play in the top six.
The last realistic option is Gemel Smith. Smith has never appeared in an NHL playoff game and played in just eight games this season, five in Tampa and three in Syracuse. He’s a responsible, defensive forward that fits on the fourth line. Picking Smith here would be a fairly conservative option and I don’t think you’d see him on the ice very often, effectively making it like the Lightning were playing 11 forwards anyways. However, he does play a tough game and has just enough size to stand in there with some of the Islanders forwards that frequently test the line between clean and dirty play.