Significant injuries derail playoff hopes around NHL
There's plenty of knocking on wood this time of year around the NHL as teams hope to avoid injuries that could damage their playoff hopes.
For some, it's already too late.
The Tampa Bay Lightning lost Steven Stamkos for four months - and counting - and now Tyler Johnson. The Florida Panthers went without Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov for much of the year. The Los Angeles Kings tried to stay afloat without goaltender Jonathan Quick until late February but will likely miss the playoffs.
While the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins have withstood a barrage of injuries and the league-leading Washington Capitals have largely avoided them, they're keenly aware of how quickly even one injury can make a difference.
''There's other teams that are good teams that have just had some bad luck,'' Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said. ''Tampa Bay just couldn't overcome the injuries. If Tampa Bay has Stamkos all the way through the season, they'd certainly be in a different place.''
Considered Cup contenders at the start of the season, the Lightning had to make a run just to get within three points of a playoff spot with nine games remaining.
The Panthers got Barkov and Huberdeau back and dug out of an early hole, but a lower-body injury to goaltender Roberto Luongo contributed to a 3-7-1 tailspin that might ultimately cost them the chance to make the postseason for a second consecutive year.
''Sometimes just your body breaks up because of the games and stuff like that,'' said Barkov, who missed 15 games with a back injury. ''Some teams just get more injuries, and some teams just get lucky not to get injuries.''
Injuries have again been the story of the year for the Penguins, who are currently without half their regular defense in Kris Letang, Trevor Daley and Olli Maatta, and also lost trade acquisition Ron Hainsey. But they haven't missed a beat.
''The guys that have come in just understanding whatever role that they get, they have to be accepting of it,'' captain Sidney Crosby said. ''They have a lot of responsibility in most cases, too, because they're filling in for some guys who play a lot of key minutes.''
Injuries were a severe blow to the Dallas Stars, with 292 man games lost, and 265 man games lost has put the Detroit Red Wings' 25-season playoff streak in serious jeopardy. The Edmonton Oilers have around 300 man games lost, but unlike last year's stumble when Connor McDavid broke his collarbone they are poised to end a 10-year playoff drought.
''This organization seems to have a way of getting beat up and having injuries and needing others to support the group, and this year I think we've done a better job,'' coach Todd McLellan said. ''We haven't lost those key forwards, knock on wood, like we did last year.''
Tampa Bay did when Stamkos tore the meniscus in his right knee Nov. 15 after putting up 20 points in his first 17 games. Friday night marked his 57th consecutive game out of the lineup.
Yet in Washington, the Capitals have a grand total of 42 man games lost all season and have only dealt with a hand injury that sidelined forward Andre Burakovsky 15 games and upper-body ailments that cost T.J. Oshie 13. Defenseman Brooks Orpik believes the Capitals' fortunes are a combination of off-ice injury prevention techniques and luck, while the team's brass thinks it's also about taxing players less each game.
''The team philosophy of going four lines and spreading the ice time out and spreading the ice time out on defense and spreading the ice time out among your goalies, I think it puts less stress on your lineup,'' general manager Brian MacLellan said. ''Having a deep team, I think, results in less injuries.''
Depth up front helped the Chicago Blackhawks withstand captain Jonathan Toews' nine-game absence with back problems, and having backup Antti Raanta kept the New York Rangers on track when goaltender Henrik Lundqvist went out for two weeks this month with a lower-body injury. Lundqvist is expected back this weekend.
The Columbus Blue Jackets feel fortunate not to need to test their depth again this season after injuries ravaged them to the count of 510 man games lost two years ago. They've overcome defenseman Seth Jones' broken foot and Ryan Murray's broken hand to make the playoffs for the third time in franchise history, so it doesn't feel at all like 2014-15 in Columbus.
''It's just too good of a league to be able to survive that type of season,'' Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen said. ''This year we've been lucky and hopefully done some things right as well where we haven't been injured as much and knock on wood hopefully stay healthy for the rest of the year.''
AP Hockey Writer John Wawrow in Buffalo contributed.