CHICAGO — The Lightning got more bad news Monday with wing Ondrej Palat out 6-8 weeks with a lower-body injury.
It’s a big blow to a struggling Tampa Bay team, which is now without its top defenseman (Victor Hedman) and now arguably its best defensive forward.
And what’s even more frustrating to the Lightning is how Palat got hurt, with the Wild’s Jared Spurgeon slashing him in the back of the lower right leg Saturday.
"It’s a huge loss for us on a complete non-hockey play that didn’t have to take place," coach Jon Cooper said. "It’s tough to swallow, I’ll tell you that."
The NHL Department of Player Safety reviewed the play but determined the slash wasn’t very forceful. Either way, that means the Lightning will miss a glue guy in Palat, who plays in all situations and was an engine on the shutdown line with Brayden Point and Tyler Johnson.
"Of all the success we’ve had in the last few years, he’s a big part of it," Cooper said. "It’s unfortunate, because he’s a guy that plays the game the right way. He goes to all those dirty areas, he’s been part of a pretty productive line for us.
"Guys get hurt in this game, I just didn’t like the way he got hurt."
How will the Lightning replace Palat? Well, Nikita Kucherov took Palat’s spot on the line with Point and Johnson to start Monday night’s 2-0 victory in Chicago. There was plenty of line shuffling, with Steven Stamkos centering Vladislav Namestnikov and Chris Kunitz. Matt Peca, called up Sunday from AHL Syracuse, centered a third line with Alex Killorn and Yanni Gourde. The other callup, Michael Bournival, was on the fourth line with Ryan Callahan and Cedric Paquette. Both Peca and Bournival played Monday.
Callahan took Palat’s place on the second power-play unit, which should provide a spark to the veteran who has just one goal in 36 games this season.
But this is a great opportunity for Peca, who gained some confidence during a 10-game callup late last season. That translated into his best training camp and an All-Star season with the Crunch.
"It’s eye-opening because you realize you can play at this level," Peca said. "But also you find out how much more there is to give, how good you have to be day in, day out. I hope that when I play, I show them here."
When Peca was one of the final cuts in camp, Cooper said the former seventh-round pick showed he could be someone the team could depend on at some point this season. And now is the time.
"You like to see these guys, their growth in the American League," Cooper said. "Have they taken a step forward? And each year Matt Peca has taken a step forward. He’s earned his chance to be here, and I’m looking for big things from him."
Bournival brings a lot of energy and grit and is enjoying an offensive resurgence, scoring 13 goals for the Crunch; part of that is he has gotten more power play time recently. Bournival and Peca could help a Lightning Achilles heel — faceoffs, 30th in the league. For slumping Tampa Bay, these callups could provide a similar spark to what they did in the remarkable run at the end of last season. Adam Erne might get a callup at some point, too, as he was deserving before an injury recently sidelined him in Syracuse.
"These guys are NHL players, they can play in this league," Cooper said. "We’ve been pretty fortunate staying away from injuries until this little stretch here. Now we’ve got to see what these guys have. This is how you survive, the depth of your organization."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.