Friday, 3 a.m.
Early this morning, Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman will probably reach for the telephone.
“Hello, Syracuse,” he will begin. “Anybody left?''
Already this season, the Lightning has been through too many players who weren't supposed to help this team. Now, Yzerman is knocking again. His team is limping again, and he needs players with two knees.
The Lightning won an impressive victory Thursday night, beating the Western Conference-leading Minnesota Wild 4-1 in one of their biggest victories of the year. But for every goal the Lightning scored, it seemed that a player limped off the ice. By the end, the Lightning were down to three lines and Advil.
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The first two left, apparently with knee injuries, in a five-minute span. Paquette was injured when Nino Niederreiter fell on him, and his ankle was savagely twisted.
“I thought we had that game in somewhat control," said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. "We were playing really well and we weren’t giving them much. It was big to get out of the second. They had the little power play at the end of the second. We got out of there without giving one up and it was a big kill to get out of that. I felt pretty comfortable. Then, unfortunately, Ceddy goes down. It really became a little bit of scramble mode after that. We were holding on. Give Minnesota credit. They were pushing. We bent a little bit, but Vasy was there to bail us out in the end.”
Said Anton Stralman: “I think we showed some character tonight. We battled it out. We were down to three lines at the end. We just went about our business and played some really good hockey for 60 minutes. I think we deserved tonight.”
It had hardly been an ouchless season for the Bolts before Thursday night. Already, their roster is littered with Jake Dotchin, Gabriel Dumont, Adam Erne, Yanni Gourde and Luke Witkowski, all of who should be sweating for the glory of the Syracuse Crunch. Instead, they are the Bolts in charge of trying to stay alive in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
“It doesn't sound encouraging for any of them,” said coach Jon Cooper. “If we got one of them back for Saturday, it would be a blessing.”
Injuries aside, it was a good win for the Bolts, a win over a quality Wild team. The Bolts have now picked up points in 12 of their last 14 games.
"That one right there, if I was to look back on the season — we have 31 wins, it takes character to win them all -- but if you’re going to put that one up there, especially that last 12 minutes or so," Cooper said. "You’re playing with limited players. They were just responsible. It was gritty. It was gutty. They were doing all the right things. We were getting in shot lanes. They played to win a hockey game and that’s what we did.”
Victor Hedman set personal records for scoring in the game.
"I play with good players," Hedman said. "I obviously work a lot throughout the year and throughout the summer to always try to get my game to another level. I want to be good in both ends of the ice. For me, it’s all about getting up into the plays and creating offense, but at the same time playing good defensively and joining the rush whenever I have the opportunity. Today was another one of those days where you want to be a difference maker out there, especially in these big games. You want to contribute and it was obviously nice to get it going there in the first.”
Still, it's hard to celebrate when players are limping through the dressing room.
“I don’t know if it’s the same kind (of injury), but obviously seeing guys go down puts a lot of pressure on the other guys," Hedman said. "It’s never fun to see or watch guys in pain being carried off like that. Props to all the forwards tonight. Playing nine or ten guys against a really tough opponent, it takes a lot. They kept their shifts short and kept it simple most of the night. A real team effort. This is one of those games where you need to come through as a team and we really did tonight. Really proud of the guys and obviously a big boost for us.”
The Bolts are home Saturday against Florida.
“What’s been encouraging for me has been the last two months," Cooper said. "Unfortunately, when you’re as far back as we were, it takes a lot to climb back into it. We are still a long way away. The good thing is we’ve been pointing here. The more teams you can knock behind you, the less you have to worry about ahead of you about winning. I don’t know if we got by anybody tonight, but you start limiting the number of teams you can put your sights on. The teams in the division, the teams you’re trying to catch, you’ve got to win those games. We’ve got a huge one here Saturday. We can’t hang our hat and sit here and say, ‘Well we gained three points from two quality playoff teams.’ That’s behind us now and we’ve got to focus on getting points from Florida.”
The Bolts will have to play like that again if they are to get back in the race.
The question is: If the Lightning make it, who will suit up for them?