It’s a luxury not a lot of NHL organizations have and it partially explains why the Tampa Bay Lightning are one of four teams still standing in this year’s Stanley Cup tournament. The Lightning were not tipping their hand when it came to the injury status of Brayden Point going into Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final against the New York Islanders Friday night, but even if they don’t have him in the lineup, they have a capable and like-minded understudy in Anthony Cirelli at their disposal.
And there are a lot of similarities between the two players, not the least of which both of them could have been had by any NHL team, but fell to the Lightning in the third round of the draft. Like Point, Cirelli is responsible defensively and while he’s not on Point’s level as an offensive producer, he certainly has a knack for scoring big goals and creating offense when given the opportunity.
“It’s just a compliment to, not only Tony as a player, but just our depth down the middle where guys can step in,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “Tony and ‘Pointer’ have a lot of the same attributes, other than the fact that one is right-handed (Point) and the other is left-handed (Cirelli). Their mental makeup and their hockey IQ and their compete are at elite levels in this league. Maybe ‘Pointer’ has a little more experience under his belt and he obviously has better offensive numbers, but Tony’s another gamer and guys love playing with him.”
Point left the Lightning’s 2-1 win in Game 2 with an undisclosed injury after taking only two shifts in the second period. A long-term injury to the Lightning’s leading Conn Smythe Trophy contender and best all-round player would be a devastating blow to a team that is already dealing with the long-term loss of Steven Stamkos. And the problem created by moving Cirelli up to the top line between Ondrej Palat and Nikita Kucherov means that two-thirds of the second line is gone, since Alex Killorn was suspended one game for the late, dirty, reckless hit he put on Brock Nelson that resulted in a five-minute major and a game misconduct in Game 2. The Lightning go with 11 forwards and seven defenseman, a strategy Cooper does not see himself abandoning now. The most likely player to take one of the spots would be Mitchell Stephens, who has played six games in this playoff tournament. Mathieu Joseph, who has yet to appear in the post-season, is another possibility.
So there would almost certainly be a trickle-down effect, but the Lightning have the luxury of having the aforementioned depth and a 2-0 lead in the series, which makes Kucherov’s goal with 7.8 seconds in Game 2 all the larger. It may require the Lightning weather a short storm or a long one, but there are few that are as well equipped to deal with these situations as the Lightning.
“Every team’s got NHL players and we’ve got really good NHL players,” Cooper said. “Players who have contributed to our success, players who have already played in these playoffs…we’re really confortable putting other guys in our lineup, but losing someone of Point’s stature is not ideal. We’ve played without him before, we’ve played without multiple guys before, so (the coaching staff’s) job is to make sure they’re not thinking, ‘Oh, well, poor us.’ And I don’t feel we’re a team like that. To get this far, everyone is pulling in the same direction, so I think if anything, our guys will dig their heels in the sand a little bit harder and push forward. We have guys who are waiting in the wings and champing at the bit to get and we’re really comfortable with that.”
Another thing with which Cooper is comfortable is his configuration of using seven defensemen and 11 forwards, even though from the second period on they were down to just nine forwards after Point’s injury and Killorn’s ejection. He doesn’t see a need to buttress his forward ranks with numbers if the quality has been reduced.
“We’re extremely comfortable going 11 and seven,” Cooper said. “We’re going to go with the 18 guys who give us the best chance to win Game 3. Whether it’s 11 and seven, 12 and six, 10 and eight, it’s no matter to us.”