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Surviving a Lightning strike: Bolts get defensive, stay in playoff race despite Steven Stamkos injury

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

Steven Stamkos slid into the goalpost hard – so hard that the net flew off its moorings. He struggled to his feet but couldn’t put weight on his right leg. He collapsed flat onto his stomach, buried his head in his hands and pounded the ice with his right fist. Once. Twice. Three times. Four times.

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The Lightning have remained competitive despite a devastating injury to their most electrifying player. (AP)

You knew it was bad even before you saw the replay of his leg bending the way a leg should not bend, before you heard the diagnosis of a broken tibia.

What a shame. Stamkos was tied for the NHL lead in goals (14) and points (23). But his quest for the Rocket Richard and Art Ross Trophies was over, and his chance to play for Team Canada at the Sochi Olympics was in jeopardy. The Tampa Bay Lightning led the Eastern Conference at 12-4-0. But this was a team most pundits had picked to miss the playoffs with one of the league’s best players. How was it going to survive without him?

Now suddenly it doesn’t seem so bad. Stamkos was injured Nov. 11 and had surgery the next day. He was walking without crutches in two weeks, skating lightly in a month. Though the goal-scoring and scoring titles are out of reach, the Olympics are still possible in February – and so are the NHL playoffs. The Lightning has gone 7-6-3 without Stamkos and held onto a playoff spot, third in the Atlantic Division.

That is a respectable record under the circumstances. Consider this: The Bolts averaged 3.25 goals per game in the 16 games before Stamkos went down. They have averaged 2.13 goals per game in the 16 games after Stamkos went down – a difference of 1.12. Over the past five seasons, Stamkos has averaged 1.17 points per game. When the Bolts lost Stamkos, they lost a little more than one goal per game and couldn’t replace it. Yet they have stayed afloat.

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“It’s amazing what one guy can do to your offense when he’s out,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “But we’ve really turned it up in the defensive end. Defense wins you championships, and we need to be able to play in our own end and carry that on when he does come back.”

The Bolts allowed 2.44 goals per game in the 16 games before Stamkos went down. They have allowed 2.31 goals per game in the 16 games after Stamkos went down – slightly better, not much. But take a longer-term view: They are allowing 2.39 goals per game overall this season, 11th in the league. They allowed 3.06 last season, 26th in the league. They allowed 3.39 the season before that, dead last.

This used to be a team with a potent offense, but porous defense and goaltending. But general manager Steve Yzerman made two key moves last season – replacing Guy Boucher with Cooper, acquiring goaltender Ben Bishop from the Ottawa Senators.

From the beginning, Cooper has stressed coming back with numbers and playing as a five-man unit defensively. He had made some adjustments since Stamkos’ injury to simplify the Bolts’ style. But mostly he has emphasized what he was already teaching, and it has simply mattered more.

“When you do have guys you know can be game-breakers for you, sometimes you tend to create some things for them,” Cooper said. “But we concentrate on our end of the ice, and you’ve got to really try to get the lead and protect.”

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Goalie Ben Bishop has been a revelation in the Tampa Bay crease this season. (USA Today)

Meanwhile, Bishop has been making saves. After being buried on the depth chart in Ottawa and with the St. Louis Blues before that, he has seized the opportunity to be a starter, using his 6-foot-7 frame to take space from shooters. He is 17-5-2 this season, and ranks third in goals-against average (1.97) and fourth in save percentage (.933).

“The guys in front of me are playing really well, and I just feel I’ve gotten better each year the past four years,” Bishop said. “I finally get a chance to play in one place.”

The Bolts have gone from a terrible possession team to a decent possession team according to advanced statistics, and they have top-10 save percentages at even strength and shorthanded. They are 8-3-3 in one-goal games and 13-1-1 when they score first.

Is this what Cooper wants the Lightning to be, with or without Stamkos?

“We are getting close to where we want to be,” Cooper said. “I think our guys have been shortchanged a little bit, because we have been playing better than the offensive statistics will tell you. You have to battle through that. It’s really frustrating.

“You look at a guy like Marty St-Louis who’s approaching 1,000 points in his career, and he sits there going, ‘How are we not putting pucks in the net?’ But then you look at him, the way he’s backchecking and playing in our end, and you realize that’s why we’re winning games.

“We have to concentrate on that. It may be boring. It’s not the way we designed it up at the beginning of the year, in the sense that we wanted to keep our goal pace but bring our goals against down. Now we have to bring our goals against down.”

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St-Louis has won the scoring title twice – in 2003-04 and last season. He had 16 points in the 16 games before Stamkos was injured this season. He still has produced 14 points in the 16 games after Stamkos was injured, first with Valtteri Filppula and then Tyler Johnson as his centerman. With all due respect to Filppula and Johnson, they are not Stamkos.

“It is different,” St-Louis said. “You try to find ways. You don’t want to make excuses. I know people are going to look at me, ‘Well, how is he now without Stammer?’ I’m trying to pull my weight. I’m trying to help this team win.”

The captain sets the tone for the team. The Bolts try to find ways. They don’t want to make excuses. They know people are going to look at them and wonder, “Well, how are they now without Stammer?”

The answer is, they’ve been OK without Stammer – and without Victor Hedman and Ryan Malone and others, too. Maybe they were better than people thought already, and maybe they will be better off for this in the end.

“We’re missing Stammer’s goals, his swagger, his passion,” St-Louis said. “We’ve got a lot of injuries. We’ve got a lot of different personnel coming in. The one thing that’s stuck with us is playing good team defense. I think when we get a healthy body, it makes us a better team.”

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