Tue. Feb 27th, 2024

TAMPA — As the Lightning better position themselves in a crowded Eastern Conference playoff race, their injury list continues to grow.

Forward Austin Watson joined the group, week-to-week with a lower-body injury after missing Tuesday’s win in Philadelphia.

On the surface, the loss of the 32-year-old Watson — who has averaged just 6:42 of ice time in 26 games, scoring two goals and an assist — doesn’t seem like a huge dent to the lineup.

But when you consider the number and type of players the Lightning are already without due to injury, Watson’s loss takes away one of the team’s most physical forwards.

The Lightning are missing their two leaders in hits — forward Tanner Jeannot (132 hits) and defenseman Erik Cernak (90 hits). Watson is third on the team with 61 hits, despite playing just more than half of Tampa Bay’s games this season. Defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, who was fourth on the team in hits last season, hasn’t played since Dec. 19 (foot injury) and has missed the past 15 games.

Watson had received a bigger role since Jeannot’s injury, and the team’s overall improved play — the Lightning have won six of their last seven and 11 of 16 — has been anchored by better defense, winning possession battles and playing a heavier and more fundamentally sound game.

Austin Watson, right, fighting with Ducks left wing Ross Johnston during a Jan. 13 game, is one of the Lightning's most physical forwards.Austin Watson, right, fighting with Ducks left wing Ross Johnston during a Jan. 13 game, is one of the Lightning’s most physical forwards. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Watson played just one shift in the third period on Sunday in Detroit and did not return after he drew a hooking penalty at the 3:15 mark in the third. His unavailability for Tuesday’s game in part led to the Lightning playing a 11-forward, seven-defenseman lineup in their 6-3 win.

It also opened the door for forward Alex Barre-Boulet, who had played just once in the last eight games before receiving 8:57 of ice time in Philadelphia. Rookie forward Waltteri Merela, who didn’t play Tuesday, will also see time during Watson’s absence.

The Lightning currently have 12 healthy forwards on the roster, but could call up an additional forward if they place Watson on injured reserve, something that seems likely since he’s week-to-week. AHL Syracuse forwards Gage Goncalves, Mitchell Chaffee and Cole Koepke have all seen time this season with the Lightning.

Sergachev and fellow left-shot defenseman Haydn Fleury are on long-term injured reserve. Those two, as well as Jeannot, who hasn’t played since Jan. 6, and now Watson aren’t expected back until after play resumes following the All-Star break on Feb. 7, at the earliest. Cernak could return in the final two games before the break (home Thursday versus Arizona and Saturday versus New Jersey), a possibility that became more likely when the Lightning re-assigned right-shot defenseman Philippe Myers to Syracuse on Wednesday afternoon.

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