In a season of injuries, which Bolt concerns you?

by Gary Shelton on February 21, 2019 · 1 comment

in general

Kucherov has the most valuable knees on the team./CARMEN MANDATO

Thursday, 4 a.m.

Twenty games to go, and what could go wrong?

The Lightning is a mile and a half in the lead in the NHL. Their skates have rockets in them. Their sticks are golden.

The Lightning have the best goaltender they've ever had. Frankly, they have the best goaltender combination they've ever had. They have a player on the verge of 100 points with a quarter of the

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season to go. They have a rejuvenated Steven Stamkos. They have Brayden Point. They have Victor Hedman. They have Ryan McDonagh.

Frankly, they have the best argument in the NHL going: Who should be the MVP of this talent-laden club?

They fly up and down the ice. They are resilient. They are focused. They are hungry?

So whatever is there to trip over?

Injuries, that's what?

Tuesday night's victory over the Flyers should have reminded everyone of how fragile a sports team can be. Victor Hedman missed the game because of one of those vague "lower body" injuries that NHL teams talk about. Nikita Kucherov was the victim of a violent slash by Radko Gudas. Cedrick Paquette spent some time injured on the ice.

In seasons past, I am sure you remember, this has caught up to the Bolts. Goalie Ben Bishop kept getting hurt. Steven Stamkos didn't heal in time. Tyler Johnson was injured. Hockey is a punishing sport, and the playoffs are a competition about attrition.

The 2004 team, a fine team, can tell you all about that. They were an even younger team with eye-popping talent: Vinny Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis and Brad Richards and Fred Modin and Dan Boyle and Pavel Kubina and Daryl Sydor and Dave Andreychuk and Nikolai Khabibulen.

But you know what? I think this team beats that one.

The 2004 Lightning, and this takes nothing away from them, got every break in the post-season you can imagine. The teams that loomed ominously were beaten by other teams. The Bolts stayed healthy, and they won every big point, and they won the Cup.

This team is deeper. It's more explosive. But will it get the same breaks? We'll see.

So, when you argue about the team's' MVP, look at it this way. Who has the most valuable knees on the team? Who could the Lightning least afford to lose to injury for an extended time?

An opinion.

1. Nikita Kucherov, forward: When Kucherov didn't score Tuesday night, it was as if the sun had risen in the West and kittens had turned vicious. It just didn't seem right. After all, Kucherov leads the NHL with 99 points. I know, I know. There are times you wish he would shoot more, but if you think of him as a point guard, he's John Stockton.

2. Andrei Vasilevskiy, goaltender: Frankly, the only reason fans don't talk about Vasilevskiy more is because of the season his backup, Louie Domingue, is having. The Bolts have made it look easy for their goaltenders, so much so that Domingue has 19 wins. But the Bolts wouldn't want to be without the feisty Vasilevskiy for very long. Even with the time he missed this year, he's tied for fourth in the league in wins.

3. Brayden Point, forward: If you think of hockey as a two-way game -- and it is -- then you cannot overstate how important Point is to the Bolts. Frankly, the guy needs to get his butt to meetings on time. He usually draws the toughest assignment on the Bolts' defense, and he leads the team in goals despite that.

4. Victor Hedman, defenseman: Did you see how markedly the Bolts' defense changed when Hedman left the game against Columbus in the first period? He is the team's backbone, its linebacker. And without him, the Bolts' defense simply isn't as stable. Only goalies have spent more time on the ice.

5. Steven Stamkos center: This seems like an impossibly low spot to rate Stamkos and his 31 goals. But the Bolts have withstood an injury to Stammer before. They wouldn't want to do it again, not with the season he's had as a sniper.

6. Ryan McDonagh, defenseman: You have to watch a little more closely to appreciate McDonagh, but he's a smart, savvy player who will give up his body to help Tampa Bay win.

7. Tyler Johnson, forward: The days when Johnson could take over a week's worth of games might have passed, but he's still a great secondary scorer. He's got 21 goals on the season.

8. Yanni Gourde, forward: Gourde is small man who doesn't play like a small player. He'll mix it up in front of the goal, and he'll take the punishment to get his chances. When he's clocking, he gives the Bolts an element they lack otherwise.

9. Anthony Cirelli, forward: Cirelli is usually in the right place. He's one of those players that a casual observer might not appreciate. But ask his teammates: They appreciate him.

10. Mathieu Joseph, forward: I almost put J.T. Miller here. But every playoff seems to have an unsung hero who shines. Given Joseph's speed, this could be his year.

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