If healthy, Lightning are legit Cup contenders

Jon Cooper instructing his team. (Mark Humphrey/AP)

TORONTO — Not again.

The Tampa Bay Lightning can’t help but have that thought cross their minds, if only for a brief moment.

Here they are nearing the end of another impressive 100-point season and turning heads around the NHL. But instead of preparing to peak entering the playoffs, they have players lining up at the trainer’s table.

The Lightning team that lost 3-1 to the Maple Leafs on Tuesday night was not even a reasonable facsimile of the real thing. Playing back-to-back, without four defencemen and second-line centre Tyler Johnson, Tampa was reminded of how difficult life can get when the depth is spread thin.

The only problem? A similar scenario played out at this time last year and helped bring an abrupt end to what was a breakthrough season.

No wonder coach Jon Cooper acknowledged being “frustrated” after arriving at Air Canada Centre and running through an injury list that includes Victor Hedman, Jason Garrison, Braydon Coburn and Andrej Sustr.

“We went through this last year,” said Cooper. “I’ll never sit here and say ‘Oh well our injuries last year was why we lost (to Montreal in the first round).’ It was probably a small reason why, but that’s not the reason we lost.

“It’s just you’d rather go (into the playoffs) putting your best foot forward.”

There is obviously still time to get players healed up, with the Lightning having at least two more weeks before the start of the first round. But even if everyone returns for the early stages of the playoffs — a possibility Cooper wouldn’t rule out — there’s no telling how the string of late-season absences will impact one of the NHL’s brightest young teams at the most important time of year.

“Do we have a chance to (show our best)? We might,” said Cooper. “But is timing going to be off and those such things with so many different guys in the lineup, yes. You’re putting a heavier load on some other guys on your team that they’re going to have to weather, but it’s all part of the challenge.

“Hopefully we can get some of these guys rested because I’m not so sure we can take much more.”

The level of concern is understandable. Expectations are pretty high around a carefully-built organization that is trending towards becoming a serious Stanley Cup threat in the coming years.

Of course, getting there will require continued growth and much of that needs to happen in the playoffs.

Last year’s post-season experience amounted to all of six days. Without No. 1 goalie Ben Bishop, the Lightning didn’t stand a chance against Montreal, although injuries to Ondrej Palat and Valtteri Filppula (among others) hurt as well.

The Lightning still have four regular-season games remaining and are almost assured of getting Hedman back for a couple of those. He’s day-to-day with a lower-body injury. Johnson is on a similar timeline because of an undisclosed upper-body issue and skated without equipment on Tuesday morning.

There is hope Sustr and Coburn could return by the start of the first round while Garrison is expected to be out a little beyond that.

“We can’t control any of that,” said captain Steven Stamkos. “We just have to play hard, hope that the guys that are out right now are using this time to heal up. The good news is for the most part guys are looking like they’re getting better and getting ready for the playoffs when we need them.

“Hopefully that’s the case.”

Injury concerns aside, this has been a special year for the Lightning. Not only have they set a franchise record with 47 wins, there’s still a chance to pass Montreal and capture the Atlantic Division title.

What can’t be overlooked is that they’ve done it with a young lineup that features four 60-point scorers (Stamkos, Johnson, 21-year-old standout Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat). Tampa has also seen 11 players hit double digits in goals if you include Brett Connolly, who had 12 before being traded to Boston at the deadline.

“I think our depth is what’s got us through,” said Cooper.

The Lightning are an elite puck possession team that sits third in score-adjusted Corsi behind Los Angeles and Chicago. That has proven to be an excellent predictor of future success in recent seasons.

As a result, they are starting to be mentioned as a possible Cup contender this spring — something Cooper wryly downplayed by suggesting that it meant they had become a “chic” selection as a relative newcomer to the conversation.

“If you are getting chosen like that it means you’ve probably done something somewhat right during the regular season,” he added. “For me, whatever eight teams that get tossed into the playoff pool (in the East), I don’t know if somebody could sit here and say ‘yeah, that’s the team that’s coming out.’

“I’m just glad we’re one of them.”

How long they last will depend on what state their blue-line is in a couple weeks from now.

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