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'Triplets' limping to the finish line

TAMPA -- Tampa Bay Lighting forward Tyler Johnson didn’t get a good look at the nasty collision as it happened. He didn’t see teammate Nikita Kucherov get tripped up by Chicago Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford and go flying shoulder-first into the post. He was back-checking when Kucherov skated off the ice toward the Lightning bench hunched over before heading down the tunnel and out of the game.

He knew soon enough that it was serious.

When Johnson entered the Lightning dressing room after the first period of Game 5 and Kucherov wasn’t there, he knew. He realized then that the Triplets, as we’ve come to know them, were no longer -- at least not for this crucial game.

"That’s when you realize he’s not coming back [but] still have no idea what’s going on with him," Johnson told ESPN.com after the Blackhawks 2-1 win in Game 5. "It’s one of those things that it’s tough because you played with him so long, but at the same time, you just have to move on."

The league’s most productive line of Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Kucherov, a powerhouse trio that has carried this Lightning team at times during the postseason, is limping to the finish line. The attrition of playoff hockey is chipping away at three players who looked invincible at times during their incredible spring run.

Johnson leads the Stanley Cup playoffs with 23 points. Kucherov is second at 22, one more than Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. Palat’s well-rounded, 200-foot game that has shades of Marian Hossa has been the perfect compliment to those two.

Now, one loss from watching the Blackhawks raise the Stanley Cup, the Lightning might have to try rallying without their best line in tact. Kucherov played 1:17 before the collision with the post. That was all he’d play.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper anticipated a return from Kucherov that never came. Cooper said his talented Russian winger was to be evaluated after the game or sometime Sunday.

Cooper had no update on Kucherov's status.

"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. You don’t want to lose guys like that."

Cooper cycled through wingers on the line in Kucherov’s place, most notably Steven Stamkos and Jonathan Drouin.

Stamkos was held off the scoresheet again and managed just one shot on goal. It just goes to show that even plugging in one of the best players in the world doesn’t automatically duplicate chemistry and success generated by three guys who seem to have a sixth sense when playing together.

"I’ve played with those guys in some power-play situations, not a lot 5-on-5," Stamkos said. "They’re two great players. We had some looks at the end. It’s just not good enough to get looks right now. We have to find a way. We have to find a way to score some goals. It starts with me."

Complicating things further is the suspected injury to Johnson, who has stopped taking faceoffs for that line and was replaced by Palat. Only Valtteri Filppula took more faceoffs than Johnson during the regular season, and Johnson hasn’t taken more than one faceoff in a game since Game 1 of this series.

Asked again about his health following the game, he denied any issues.

"I’m great," he said.

One hundred percent?

"Oh yeah," he said with a quick smile.

You’re not lying?

"I would never lie to a reporter," he said.

Faced with elimination, one of Cooper’s biggest challenges will be finding a successful stand-in for Kucherov if he can’t go on Monday in Game 6.

The faux Triplets got outplayed at times by Chicago’s fourth line centered by Marcus Kruger, who did a good job generating zone time against Johnson, Palat and the Kucherov fill-ins.

If Stamkos is the answer, it makes the Lightning forward group a little top-heavy. The better solution might ultimately be Drouin, who has the skill set to duplicate Kucherov’s success, just not the chemistry -- at least not yet.

"As a player, you want to be up there. It’s up to the coaches," Drouin said. "You look at the way they play. They play a fast game. You don’t want to slow them down out there. You want to make sure you’re up-tempo and up to speed with those two guys. Hopefully, Kuch is there for Game 6."