TAMPA — The Lightning has made a remarkable run with an injury-depleted lineup, which features six rookies.
Instead of captain Steven Stamkos or Tyler Johnson, there are youngsters such as Yanni Gourde and Byron Froese. Heck, defenseman Luke Witkowski is filling in as a fourth-line wing.
That has worked for a while thanks to grit and guts, heroics by Brayden Point, Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy.
But is it sustainable?
It certainly wasn't Saturday night, the Lightning losing another must-win game, 5-3 to the Eastern Conference-leading Capitals at Amalie Arena. Tampa Bay has dropped back-to-back games for the first time since Jan. 31-Feb. 2, when it was last in the conference. The Lightning (34-28-9) is still just two points out of the final wild-card spot behind Toronto (which has a game in hand) with 11 to go. But does it have the roster to pull off another run?
"You don't have guys," coach Jon Cooper said. "And we've found ways to win with this lineup. You're playing good teams, these teams are in the playoffs. That's an 100-point team. It's tough. You're hanging in there with them."
The Lightning hung in there Saturday even when it looked like it would be a blowout. It overcame a two-goal first period deficit, entering the third tied. "We gave ourselves a chance," defenseman Braydon Coburn said.
But the Capitals scored twice in the first five minutes of the period to pull away, Nikita Kucherov's second goal of the game in the final minutes making it interesting.
It's awfully hard for the Lightning, which has been a one-line team of late. Cooper rode Kucherov, Point and Palat (career-high 26 minutes, 16 seconds), all logging more than 20 minutes, no other forward reaching 18.
"We need more than Point, Kucherov and Palat," Cooper said.
Wing Alex Killorn, who snapped a 16-game goal drought, said players other than Kucherov need to step up and produce, himself included. So does Jonathan Drouin, who is in a 12-game drought. They have no choice.
Stamkos (knee surgery) is getting closer, but there's no guarantee he plays by the end of the regular season. Centers Johnson, Vladislav Namestnikov and Cedric Paquette have no timeline for their return. Tampa Bay doesn't have the margin for error to have lapses, like it did on the deflating third goal, a tip by Justin Williams just after a power play expired.
"We take a penalty, get through it and then stopped playing," Cooper said.
Said Killorn: "We've got to compete for the entire game. It wasn't there (Saturday)."
Tampa Bay had its chances in the second period, Gabriel Dumont stopped on the doorstep, Drouin hitting the post.
"We've got to make sure we don't lose faith," Hedman said.
Or lose any more players.
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.
First Period—1, Washington, Oshie 27 (Johansson, Backstrom), 3:44 (pp). 2, Washington, Oshie 28 (Ovechkin, Backstrom), 11:52. 3, Tampa Bay, Kucherov 32 (Point, Palat), 15:52 (pp). 4, Tampa Bay, Killorn 17 (Drouin), 16:08. Penalties—Tampa Bay bench, served by Witkowski (too many men on the ice), 2:33; Oshie, WSH, (high sticking), 15:24; Mckegg, TB, (roughing), 18:37; Wilson, WSH, (roughing), 18:37; Brown, TB, (roughing), 18:37; Carlson, WSH, (roughing), 18:37.
Second Period—None. Penalties—None.
Third Period—5, Washington, Williams 20 (Niskanen, Burakovsky), 3:14. 6, Washington, Carlson 8 (Oshie, Backstrom), 5:30. 7, Tampa Bay, Kucherov 33 (Point), 18:30. 8, Washington, Oshie 29 (Backstrom), 19:16. Penalties—Drouin, TB, (interference), 1:01. Shots on Goal—Washington 10-13-12—35. Tampa Bay 10-8-11—29. Power-play opportunities—Washington 1 of 2; Tampa Bay 1 of 1. Goalies—Washington, Holtby 36-11-6 (29 shots-26 saves). Tampa Bay, Budaj 28-21-3 (0-0), Vasilevskiy 17-15-6 (34-30). A—19,092 (19,092).