TAMPA -- Injuries have been a hot-button topic for these Tampa Bay Lightning throughout the Stanley Cup finals. Starting goaltender Ben Bishop has evaded questions about what prevented him from playing Game 4. He is suspected to still be battling this undisclosed injury. Top playoff performer Tyler Johnson, rumored to be playing through a hand injury, has been furtive as well and has denied that anything is amiss, despite his not taking a faceoff the past four games.
Now, after Game 5, those questions will only persist, as the Lightning saw another one of their key contributors exit the ice in clear distress following a net-front collision early in the first period of the team’s 2-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.
Skilled winger Nikita Kucherov, second only behind Johnson in playoff scoring, with 10 goals and 22 points, left the game at 5:22 after crashing into the left goalpost following a run-in with Blackhawks netminder Corey Crawford in the crease.
Kucherov, a member of the dynamic "Triplets" line, immediately skated off to the Lightning dressing room, hunched over in pain from what appeared to be an upper-body injury.
Asked about Kucherov’s status, Lightning coach Jon Cooper said he did not know the nature or severity of the injury, but he admitted the concern was significant.
"Naturally, he's a point-per-game guy in these playoffs. He's a big part of our offense," Cooper said. "In a series where goals are at a premium, it's tough when you lose one of your guys. In saying that, though, we battled hard. We got that game tied. You know, it's unfortunate we fell one short in the end. Naturally, losing a guy like Kuch ... you don't want to lose guys like that."
The Bolts are now trailing 3-2 in the series, which means Chicago has the chance to hoist the Stanley Cup on home ice at the United Center in Game 6, and the Lightning have to win two straight to ensure they are the last team standing.
Resilience and moxie have been trademarks of this young bunch. No one will question the character within that dressing room. But with a series this close -- no team has enjoyed more than a one-goal lead through the first five games -- injuries will certainly play a role.
Unfortunately for the Lightning, it has not been depth players who have been felled.
"You see anyone go down who’s been such a big part [of our success], and he doesn’t get a chance to play, you feel for him," forward Brian Boyle said. "But you need to understand the responsibilities are going around. You need everyone else to pick up the slack."
Tampa Bay feels it has the depth to fill the void, and it might need it now more than ever.
Lightning defenseman Anton Stralman said it is incumbent upon this group to make sure others chip in offensively, should the team be missing Kucherov for any period of time.
"It's always tough. He's a big part of our team and a big part of that one line we have there," Stralman said. "But it shouldn't hurt us too much. I think, you know, we have a deep team. We have guys that can step in and make plays. [Jonathan Drouin] is a tremendous player. He got some ice time because of it. It's a collective effort when we win, but obviously, losing him is tough because he's a really good player."
Kucherov’s status for Game 6 remains unclear, and seeing Bishop between the pipes again is no sure bet, either.
Beyond the issue he has been playing through, Bishop was shaken up after a crazy sequence in the first period that resulted in the Hawks’ first goal at 6:11.
Bishop, known to be among the better puck-handlers among goaltenders in the league, came out to the top of the left faceoff circle to play the puck. He had made eye contact with Steven Stamkos and was trying to get the puck up the ice to him. Instead, an unsuspecting Victor Hedman came barreling through. Both players went down, which left Hawks winger Patrick Sharp to breeze in for an easy empty-net goal.
Afterward, Bishop huddled with team trainers but decided to remain in the game.
Asked if he feels he will be able to play in Game 6, he responded: "Hope so."
Kucherov’s status seems much more dubious, but Cooper said he would not know more until Kucherov is evaluated further.
Regardless, Cooper believes his team will respond as they have all spring.
"These guys have gamed out this playoffs," Cooper said. "And I expect nothing less in Game 6 in Chicago."