BRANDON — Two months into the season, the Lightning unexpectedly sit in second place in the Atlantic Division and third in the Eastern Conference.
Tampa Bay has done so with star C Steven Stamkos missing the past three weeks with a broken leg, with depth C Tom Pyatt out for most of the season with a broken collarbone and with LW Ryan Malone on injured reserve and expected to miss two more weeks since blocking a shot on Nov. 22.
That has left the lineup, already filled with a handful of rookies at the start of the season, utilizing six players with fewer than 65 games of NHL experience, including five rookies.
And, should the lines run during practice on Saturday hold true for Tuesday’s game in Columbus, those six players — Alex Killorn (64 games), J.T. Brown (14), Tyler Johnson (40), Ondrej Palat (40), Richard Panik (50) and Nikita Kucherov (three) — will comprise two of the top three lines.
“These guys have been good pros and they’ve won, and there is a lot to be said about knowing how to win,’’ Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “And these guys have helped us get where we are, but we also have a veteran group of players that allows them to play the way they have because they take away the top defensive pairings, so that puts them in a position to succeed. But I also like how they have seized that opportunity, and that’s why they have enjoyed success.’’
Those nine players have combined for 17 goals and 30 assists through 26 games this season.
A little longer
Pyatt, who was expected to be out six to eight weeks after breaking his collarbone on Oct. 8 in Buffalo, hoped to receive clearance for full contact by Tuesday but instead could miss up to another month.
The change in prognosis came after Pyatt said a bone scan preformed earlier in the week revealed a gap remained in the fracture, which requires more time to fully heal.
“If it wasn’t such a contact sport I would be back already. But if I take a hit along the boards it can break again and I’m right back to where I started,’’ Pyatt said.
On a string
In only three NHL games, and just 20 as a professional, Kucherov has been impressive to this point.
After picking up his first career goal on his first shot, which came on his first shift in the NHL on Monday against the New York Rangers, the 20-year-old has had several more opportunities to add to his total, including breakaway chances among his nine shots on goal while showing plenty of confidence in the offensive zone.
“It’s like a yo-yo (on his stick). He’s pulling the string, walking the dog and the puck is right behind him, so that’s cool to watch,’’ Cooper said.
But it’s Kucherov’s play at the other end of the ice that has allowed him to keep getting the ice time to be in those offensive situations.
“I like his offensive instincts, but people are going to look at his chances for and his shots and the chances he is getting, but what impresses me the most is how hard he is backchecking,’’ Cooper said. “As I told him, ‘I’m not so worried about you putting the puck in the net. If you want to stick around, show me how you can play without the puck and that will make a statement.’ And he has responded. And I have no doubt in my mind the pucks will start going in for him.’’
Nuts and Bolts
D Radko Gudas (upper body) and LW Pierre-Cedric Labrie (arm) missed practice on Saturday and remain listed as day-to-day. ... Tampa Bay finished November with an 8-5-1 record, tied for the most wins in November in franchise history and one point short of the 8-5-2 mark (18 points) set in 2006-07. ... Tampa Bay’s 16-9-1 record through 26 games is the best start in franchise history in regards to wins and points. The previous record for wins (14) was set in 2010-11 and points (31) was set in (2003-04 and 2010-11).