TAMPA -- Just like the Buffalo Sabres, the Tampa Bay Lightning have dealt with a major injury epidemic this season. But the situation here is much different because the Bolts came into the season with huge expectations to make a deep playoff run.
Instead, they entered Thursday's game on a four-game losing streak -- getting outscored, 22-9, in those games -- and were just 9-13-3 since captain Steven Stamkos went out with a knee injury in mid-November. The Lightning actually went 3-1 in its first four games without its captain, including its Nov. 17 win in Buffalo. So that made them just 6-12-3 over a 21-game stretch.
It's low-rent stuff for a team that was in the Stanley Cup final in 2015 and came within a game of returning last year before dropping Game Seven of the Eastern Conference final in Pittsburgh. Most experts picked them to be in Cup contention again this year.
But in addition to Stamkos and goalie Ben Bishop, who returned Thursday after missing nine games, the Lightning were without forwards Ryan Callahan (hip) and J.T. Brown (upper body) . They did, however, see the return of forward Brian Boyle (lower body) and defenseman Braydon Coburn (upper body).
"When you lose players of that caliber, obviously it's mentally tough," coach Jon Cooper said before the game in Amalie Arena. "The big problem is guys who are still in are now playing with different linemates. Guys are continually in and out. We've gone through this the last few months. Get a lineup in, it's two guys back in and two out the next game. One in, one out.
"It's continually changing the synergy of our lines. When the familiarity is not there, you're showing up at the rink wondering who's in and who's out, not based on coaches decisions but based on injuries. That becomes tough as well and it can become disruptive."
Earlier in the week, General Manager Steve Yzerman gave Cooper a vote of confidence while speaking to the Tampa Bay Times
"Our team competes really hard, and I think Coop and his staff have done a really good job," Yzerman said. "I like the way we play. I like the style. We've got to improve in some areas. The type of play our coaches led by Coop want the team to play I'm very comfortable with."
Injuries aside, the Lightning have had serious struggles defensively and Andrei Vasilevskiy was unable to hold the fort while playing all the games in Bishop's absence. Vasilevskiy is 10-9-2 this season while Bishop entered the game 9-10-2 and neither had strong save percentages, with Vasilevskiy just ahead, .907 to .904
The Lightning will retire the No. 26 jersey of former center Martin St. Louis prior to Friday night's game here against Columbus. It will be the first retired number in the history of the franchise, which was born in 1992.
Prior to the gates opening to the public for Thursday's game, former Sabres center and Lightning captain Dave Andreychuk hosted a Q&A session with St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier for season ticket-holders. Just before the game, St. Louis got a rousing standing ovation when he came to center ice for a ceremonial faceoff between Sabres captain Brian Gionta and Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman.
The BlueJackets were in town practicing Thursday. They were St. Louis' hand-picked choice as the opponent for his night because they are coached by John Tortorella, who directed the Lightning's 2004 Cup victory. Tampa Bay won the final over Calgary in seven games -- with St. Louis' goal in the first minute of the second overtime providing the Game Six win at the Saddledome that got the Lightning home for the clincher.
Said Tortorella here Thursday: "I'm thrilled. You're not going to be able to get me off the stage."
St. Louis' No. 26 was painted on the ice behind both nets as part of the tribute.
Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman was one of three all-star defensemen named to the Atlantic Division team, along with Montreal's Shea Weber and Ottawa's Erik Karlsson. With only three defenseman named to each division, Sabres star Rasmus Ristolainen was left off.
"You're bucking up against great names," said coach Dan Bylsma. "I think Risto has had an all-star year. He's certainly put up the numbers and been that for our team, but you are going against some great players there. In time, Risto will get his."
Hedman entered Thursday with seven goals, 30 assists and a plus-1 rating. Ristolainen had three goals, 24 assists and was minus-2.
"Hedman is more a skating guy up ice, maybe a little bit better at delivering the puck up the ice," Bylsma said. "But Risto is a heavier defender and heavier guy to play against. Their guy is a guy who drives their team and so is Ristolainen for us."
The Columbus practice allowed Sabres winger Marcus Foligno a quick catchup with his older brother Nick, the BlueJackets captain. They spoke by the Buffalo bench just prior to the start of the morning skate.
"That doesn't usually happen," said a smiling Marcus Foligno. "We just realized it a couple days ago when he said, 'Hey, aren't you going to be in Tampa when we're in Tampa?' Pretty cool."
Sabres winger Tyler Ennis, who is closing in on a return after more than two months out of the lineup due to double hernia surgery, was not with the team on the trip here. Robin Lehner (flu), Josh Gorges (hip) and Dmitry Kulikov (back) also did not make the trip.