The Lightning are just three years removed from losing a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals 1-0 to eventual Cup winners Boston. But the Lightning's inability to defend has found Tampa Bay outside of the postseason the last two seasons, and they haven't sniffed the playoffs since 2010.
But this season has been different. Anchored by the stellar play of Ben Bishop, the Lightning spent the beginning part of the season in the driver's seat of the new Atlantic Division. Then came maybe the most difficult injury for this team to overcome: Steven Stamkos broke his tibia in an ugly, goalmouth collision in Boston.
Still, the Lightning had done an admirable job weathering the storm without the services of its top scorer. But now, more adversity has hit for head coach Jon Cooper's team.
Thursday night, the Lightning handled business at home against divisional foe Ottawa. But in doing so, Tampa Bay lost two more players to injury: defensemen Victor Hedman and Keith Aulie. Both players exited Thursday's game during the second period with injuries, and did not return. While Hedman's condition seems less serious (it's been reported as a lower-body injury, and Cooper called him day-to-day), Aulie has a broken hand, and will have surgery on Friday, according to Cooper.
If you're keeping score, this means the Lightning are now down Stamkos, Aulie, Ryan Malone (broken ankle) and Eric Brewer, who sustained a lower-body injury during a morning skate on Tuesday. The Lightning just can't catch any breaks.
Cooper voiced a bit of his frustration after the Ottawa win.
"They're going to call us the Syracuse Lightning pretty soon," Cooper said, referring to his team's American Hockey League affiliate. "It's emotional and physically taxing. You're playing with unfamiliar guys all the time and it's tough to get synergy and chemistry going, but we just won a game without those guys in the lineup."
The play of Bishop and the contributions of guys like the ageless Martin St. Louis have helped Tampa Bay stay afloat. The Lightning currently sit third in the Atlantic, which would guarantee them a spot in the playoffs if they started today. But with some Eastern Conference teams beginning to turn it around, the question is can Tampa Bay hang around that top-eight group while its key guys get healthy?