Injury-riddled Lightning embark on critical home stretch

BRANDON — The Lightning already sit at the official mid-way point of the regular reason facing an uphill climb to get into the playoffs, but they will also be without some of their key players while trying to chase their way back into postseason positioning.

After returning to the ice Monday with a practice session at the TGH Ice Plex, coach Jon Cooper indicated that the team will be without both left-shot defenseman Mikhail Sergachev and physical forward Tanner Jeannot for the immediate future.

Jeannot took a hit into the boards in the second period of Saturday’s 7-3 loss in Boston, struggled to get back to his feet and didn’t return. Cooper said that Jeannot, who was absent from Monday’s practice, was undergoing further evaluation, but added that his status is probably more week-to-week than day-to-day.

Cooper also wasn’t optimistic that Sergachev, who hasn’t played since Dec. 19 after taking a puck to the back of his left foot, would return from long-term injured reserve when he is eligible on Saturday; the Lightning host the Ducks that night.

“I wouldn’t put any hard, fast dates; they’ve got some significant injuries,” Cooper said of Jeannot and Sergachev. “So, it’s unfortunate. They’re all kind of piling up at the same time. ... It’s a tough stretch for us right now.”

One positive note on the injury front: The Lightning should get top right-shot defenseman Erik Cernak back for Tuesday’s game against the Kings, which is the start of a four-game homestand over a 10-day stretch. Cernak, who has missed the past three games, was injured Dec. 31 against Montreal and was a full participant in Monday’s practice. Jack Thompson was reassigned to AHL Syracuse Monday afternoon, another indication of Cernak’s likely return Tuesday.

Cernak’s return will be a welcomed boost for the Lightning’s defensive corps, which is without Sergachev and Haydn Fleury. Over the past two games, three of the team’s top defensemen prospects — Emil Lilleberg, Thompson and Declan Carlile — have made their NHL debuts.

“It’s a tough situation because you want to be able to see these players,” Cooper said. “Either you saw them in camp (or) they’ve been in the minors improving and so then you want to see what they can do at the NHL level. But if they’re at the NHL level, that means you’ve lost somebody to injury and you don’t want to do that. ...

“But you have to understand that injuries are part of the game. And when other guys are called upon, you want to see if they’ve got potential to be in our future. And all the guys that have come up have most definitely. So that’s a great sign.”

Coming off a road trip to Winnipeg, Minnesota and Boston that netted just two of a possible six points, this upcoming stretch is a crucial one. The Lightning entered Monday sitting one point out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but they ranked 12th out of the conference’s 16 teams based on point percentage because they’ve played more games than other teams.

Their game Tuesday against the Kings, a team that boasts the best road record in the league at 13-3-1, opens a three-game stretch in five days. After Saturday’s game against the Ducks, they don’t play again until the following Thursday against Minnesota, which will provide valuable time to get healthy, but also allow other teams to build points.

Both losses on the Lightning’s just-completed road trip were winnable games. They went into the third period trailing by just one goal in both Winnipeg and Boston.

They trailed the Jets 2-1 until goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy’s errant clear attempt turned the puck over and led to a Jets goal with less than five minutes remaining. In Boston, they trailed 4-3 going into the third and had already cut a two-goal lead to one twice in the game.

The Bruins then scored just 95 seconds into the third when Lilleberg challenged David Pastrnak on the rush inside the right wing blue line, and Pastrnak found Morgan Geekie open through the middle to make it 5-3.

The Lightning still hung with Boston deep into the third until Victor Hedman lost the puck on a 6-on-4, extra-attacker power play when his stick broke trying to snap a shot on goal, giving Jake DeBrusk an empty-netter with 3:26 left in regulation.

Earlier in that game, Boston scored after the Lightning thought a play had been whistled over, which earned Cooper a bench minor after Tampa Bay went down 3-1. A similar play occurred in the Lightning’s win over Montreal on New Year’s Eve.

“Some of it has been that,” Cooper said of the unlucky turns. “But some of it also has been taking your eye off the prize for two or three minutes or taking a breath and all of a sudden you’ve taken that breath and that team’s taken advantage of you. And it’s hard to be at your peak for 60 straight minutes. It’s just when you’re not, it feels at times pucks have ended up in our net. And that’s where we have to circle the wagons and get through those times better than we have.”

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