It didn’t take long for Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper to go from fist-pumping to refocusing.
With the Lightning already minus captain Steven Stamkos, forward Alex Killorn was suspended by the NHL for Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final series against the New York Islanders on Friday night. And Cooper provided no injury update Thursday on his team’s playoff leading scorer, Brayden Point.
“I’m not trying to keep you in the dark, but we won’t have a better understanding until I talk to you tomorrow,” Cooper said of Point, who had difficulty climbing to the bench on a line change and did not return early in the second period in a 2-1 win in Game 2 on Wednesday.
The Islanders, who trail the series 2-0, were attempting to find a silver lining in how they stepped up their play following an 8-2 series-opening drubbing, and still lost after allowing Nikita Kucherov to score with 8.8 seconds left in regulation.
“I just feel like this series is close to flipping here,” Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. “Obviously, the score is the one negative, but there’s a lot of positives and they outweigh the negatives by a lot.”
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Perhaps, the Islanders can climb back by taking advantage of a thinning Lightning roster.
Killorn was issued a one-game suspension for his blindside hit that rammed New York’s Brock Nelson face-first into the boards. Killorn was issued a match penalty and ejected for the hit 5:55 into the game.
The potential of losing two key players was a reason for pause, a night after cameras caught Cooper enthusiastically pumping his fist behind the bench following Kucherov’s one-timer from the left circle, set up by Ryan McDonagh’s feed from the left boards.
Point has a point in 13 of 15 playoff games, and with eight goals and 15 assists, he’s second in the post-season scoring race behind Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon.
Cooper, who spoke before the league announced its decision on Killorn, said he would be “mildly shocked” if the NHL suspended the player.
Mitchell Stephens, who has played six post-season games, and Carter Verhaeghe (three games) are likely candidates to step in for Killorn and potentially Point.
“I think if anything, our guys will dig their heels in the sand a little harder, and push forward,” Cooper said. “We’ve got guys waiting in the wings who are champing at the bit to get in. And we’re comfortable with that.”
The Lightning, 12-3 this post-season, have already persevered in getting within two wins from making their third Stanley Cup Final appearance without Stamkos. The captain has already been ruled out from the conference finals, and been out since February due to a core muscle injury that required surgery.
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If Point can’t play, do-it-all forward Anthony Cirrelli would likely move up to the top line alongside Kucherov and Ondrej Palat.
“At the end of the day, whoever you play with on our team, you’re getting somebody good,” Cirrelli said of Kucherov. “But playing with Kuch is a whole ‘nother level.”
Kucherov, the Lightning’s career-leading playoff goal scorer, is second on the team with 22 points (six goals, 16 assists).
A year after the President’s Trophy-wining Lighting were swept in the first round by Columbus, Tampa Bay is showing an ability to play better defensively in taking the load off goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. The three-time Vezina Trophy finalist has allowed just seven goals in his past five starts, and given up two or fewer goals in 10 of 15 outings.
Tampa Bay is 9-1 this post-season in games decided by one goal, and beat the Islanders on Wednesday despite playing the final 40-plus minutes with just nine forwards.
That’s troublesome for the Islanders, who squandered a game they led 1-0 and outshot the Lightning 28-21. New York’s power-play unit fizzled in going 0 of 4, including the five-minute advantage following Killorn’s penalty, and a five-on-three advantage spanning 38 seconds in the third period.
Islanders captain Anders Lee attempted to keep his focus on the positives.
“Honestly, we have a lot to take away from that last game,” Lee said. “It’s different from Game 1, where you completely forget about it. Game 2, we can take things from it and build off of it.”