Mikhail Sergachev’s surprise return provides a spark in Game 4 win

TAMPA — Mikhail Sergachev could not sleep Friday night. The Lightning defenseman had just proven to his coaches that, not even 12 weeks after breaking the two major bones in his left leg, he was ready to return.

With Tampa Bay facing possible elimination Saturday night in its first-round series against the Florida Panthers, Sergachev hoped to help keep the team’s season alive.

“The docs cleared me and it was a coach’s decision, so I stayed up at the rink a little longer waiting for the coach to say yes or no, and he said yes,” Sergachev said. “And I got very excited and, honestly, I couldn’t really sleep (Friday) night. It felt like a first NHL game again.”

Sergeahev was a surprise addition to the Lightning lineup. His appearance during pregame warmups was greeted by a roar from the packed house at Amalie Arena and gave the Lightning an emotional charge heading into their 6-3 win.

“It made me very emotional, and I’m just thankful to be here and thankful for the guys,” Sergachev said. “That was huge.”

The significance of Sergachev’s return could be measured in the decibels the crowd reached as he was introduced, Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.

“In a normal introduction, you hear all the players’ names, there’s a cheer, it gets to (goaltender Andrei) Vasilevskiy, there’s a massive cheer. And I could not hear the PA guy say Vasilevskiy’s name,” Cooper said. “The roar (after Sergachev’s name) just kept going on, and all the guys on our bench got up.

“It was a stirring moment, and I thought we carried that right into the first period.”

Sergachev, 25, was taken off the ice on a stretcher Feb. 7 at Madison Square Garden after breaking the tibia and fibula in his left leg. He had surgery the next day and was back at practice by April 8.

Before the start of the postseason, Cooper had said Sergachev would not be ready for the first round. But after doctors cleared him Friday, Cooper said Sergachev showed coaches he was mentally ready to play.

“I’ve seen it time and time again,” Cooper said. “It’s the look in the eye, and he was ready.”

Sergachev, who assisted on the second of Brandon Hagel’s two goals, admitted he was tired after playing his first game in nearly three months. He logged 17:03 of ice time over 27 shifts.

“Seeing the team go down 3-0 (in the series), it’s not great, obviously, but I wasn’t sure how much of a help I would be,” Sergachev said. “But you know, it was, I guess, a confidence boost for the team and for the fans. So, I guess I helped.”

Sergachev’s teammates said it was just what they needed.

“That was phenomenal,” defenseman Victor Hedman said. “We’ve watched from close up and know how hard he has worked to get to this day, and yeah, I am super impressed by the way he played and it was a big momentum boost for the guys.”

Hedman said players knew there was a possibility Sergachev could return Saturday, but they were not sure until they got to the rink.

They got caught up in the emotion of the moment, too.

“Sure did,” captain Steven Stamkos said. “I kind of got chills myself, just with that reception that he got. .... You guys don’t get to see what goes on behind the scenes and the amount of work that goes into coming back from an injury like that, and it’s impressive.

“I mean, the timeline is impressive. Everything he’s done is extremely impressive. And to go out there and play and jump into a series when we were down and on the ropes, it was a huge boost for our team.”

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