Heading into Thursday night’s game against the Minnesota Wild, the Tampa Bay Lightning were only missing one center, captain Steven Stamkos, who has been sidelined with a knee injury since mid-November. At the conclusion of the game, the Bolts were down three more centers, as Tyler Johnson, Vlad Namestnikov, and Cedric Paquette all went down with lower-body injuries at various points throughout their 4-1 win over Minnesota.
It was an unusual and extremely unfortunate hat trick for the Lightning, as all three players had to be helped off the ice, putting very little or no weight on their left legs as they exited the game and did not return. None of the three injured centers practiced on Friday, and it’s highly unlikely that any of them play in Saturday’s crucial game against the Florida Panthers at Amalie Arena.
However, the Lightning received what appeared to be encouraging news, as Johnson, Namestnikov, and Paquette were each declared day-to-day. Their return date obviously isn’t set at this time, but after watching last night’s contest, being called day-to-day is a win in itself, as each player was in a considerable amount of pain when they exited the game and each injury looked pretty severe. Namestnikov was the first player to be helped off the ice after he and Wild forward Zach Parise chased after a loose puck and had an awkward collision into the boards. Minutes later, Johnson was the recipient of a hit along the boards from Nino Niederreiter in which Niederreiter’s left leg came up and impacted Johnson’s left knee. During the third period, Paquette had his stick slashed out of his hands, but there was no penalty and play continued. After the whistle, Paquette grabbed Niederreiter and pulled him away from goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy as Lightning defenseman Jake Dotchin also shoved Niederreiter. Neiderreiter fell backwards on top of Paquette as Paquette’s left leg twisted awkwardly.
The injuries come at a terrible time, as they traded centers Brian Boyle and Valtteri Filppula leading up to the trade deadline. The Bolts are only four points behind the New York Islanders for the final wild card spot in the Eastern Conference and are five points behind the Boston Bruins for third place in the Atlantic Division. According to Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times, the Lightning practiced on Friday with Brayden Point centering the number one line between Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov, Yanni Gourde as the center on the second line between Jonathan Drouin and Alex Killorn, while Greg McKegg was the center on the fourth line. Although Drouin or Killorn could shift to center if the need arises, it’s probably more likely the Lightning recall a player or two from Syracuse to help out.
Although it’s encouraging to see Johnson, Namestnikov, and Paquette be listed as day-to-day after it appeared as though they suffered major injuries, it’s still unknown when the three will return. Their performance in gutting out that win over the Wild with a depleted roster was impressive, but they’re going to have to continue to dig deep until they can get healthy again. Vasilevskiy will have to continue to come up big for the Bolts, while the return of Stamkos can’t come soon enough.
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