Jon Cooper wasn't going to hate on his team's three-game winning streak. But he was going to qualify it.
"Let's be honest. You're never going to turn your back on winning three in a row, but it was the Ben Bishop show all the way," Cooper said.
The Tampa Bay Lightning were slow to start Thursday night against the Buffalo Sabres in KeyBank Center.
Bishop, the team's starting goaltender, held the Sabres off the board until the Lightning got their footing, scored the the game's first goal and took control in a 4-1 win.
No one in the Lightning locker room thought it was a pretty win. The popular phrase was "it wasn't our best game." But without Steven Stamkos in the lineup, the Lightning did what was required – have offensive contributions throughout the lineup coupled with good goaltending.
It was the first game for Tampa Bay since the team received the news that its captain and leading goal-scorer would be out for four months with a torn meniscus in his right knee. Stamkos underwent surgery, performed by Dr. Robert LaPrade at the Steadman Clinic in Vail, Colorado on Thursday, while his teammates were finding a way to win in Buffalo.
No time for a pity party. There was a game to win.
Nikita Nesterov scored in the first period then Alex Killorn tallied on the power play in the second. In the closing seconds of the second period Nikita Kucherov put a puck in on a scramble in front of the net while Brayden Point added another power play goal in the third.
It was a start to life without Stamkos, who had nine goals and 20 points in his first 17 games.
"I think it’s just by committee," Killorn said of Tampa Bay's offense without Stamkos. "There’s not one guy that’s going to step in and take Stammer’s spot. I think a couple guys – three, four guys have to step up and chip in here and there and help the team for sure.
“I think we had two goals on the power play to do well. But it’s pretty spread out between our four lines. Every line can score and we expect every line to chip in every night.”
"Obviously it’s a huge blow to our team," said Bishop who finished with 32 saves. "You lose your captain and arguably one of the best players in the league. It’s a tough pill to swallow. Obviously we’re going to miss him. He’s a great leader. It’s just one of those things where you’ve got to step up. Everyone has to pick up the slack a little bit. You’re going to miss a lot of goals and a lot of points there so everyone has to chip away. You’ve got to go more as a team effort because you can’t rely on your big dog to come through. It’s got to be a team effort and tonight was a good example."
The Lightning have succeeded without Stamkos. Last year the All-Star forward had surgery to remove blood clots near his right collarbone and missed the playoffs until returning for Game Seven of the Eastern Conference finals, where Tampa Bay lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
So in some ways, it's "been-there-done-that" for the Lightning. The first step may have been getting through that first game without Stamkos. Step two is repeating it night after night.
"There’s always that emotional first game when you’re without your guy," Cooper said. "The problem is that it’s not just one game, it’s months and we just have to stay consistent. We have to play consistently well, we have to stick to our structure and just give that honest effort every single night.
"We just can’t have starts the way we had tonight because we were extremely fortunate. Buffalo came out extremely strong and played hard and our goalie was just outstanding and kept us in it. They get a couple there, who knows what’s going to happen. We need to play better than that moving forward.
Josh Gorges played his 700th regular-season NHL game Thursday night.
The 32-year old made his NHL debut with the San Jose Sharks in the second game of the 2006-07 season. He had 16 goals and 100 assists in his first 699 games.
"You try to think back to when it all started and it doesn’t seem like it was that long ago," Gorges said. "It doesn’t. It seems, maybe not quite like just yesterday but not far off. It goes quick. It’s amazing. I don’t know how to put it into words. You get to this point and you get opportunities throughout the course of your year and you realize there’s not a lot of time left for the opportunity to win and be successful. The window closes every year and doesn’t take long. It’s an eye-opener."
While Gorges was playing in his 700th game, Dan Bylsma was coaching in his 500th. Thursday was the 46-year-old's milestone game as a head coach. He is the 66th head coach (18th active) to reach 500.
Taylor Fedun earned his first call-up with the Sabres organization. The defenseman was tied for second among AHL defensemen in assists (10) and was tied for fourth in points (12) in 14 games with the Rochester Americans.
"For the most part we’ve had a successful power play. I’m getting a lot of minutes on there so that’s been going well," Fedun said Thursday morning. "As I’ve gotten more and more comfortable playing the way the coaches want us to play down there I think more things have been falling into place."