The Lightning's black-and-blue bruised defensive corps needed somebody to step up and fill a void.
With veteran Mattias Ohlund yet to suit up this year and 21-year-old Victor Hedman out since late December with a concussion, half of Tampa Bay's top four defensemen are sitting in street clothes instead of suiting up. Add Marc-Andre Bergeron, who is not traveling with the team while undergoing tests for an unspecified upper-body injury. With Bergeron out for the two-game trip to Dallas and Phoenix, the team recalled defenseman Evan Oberg from Norfolk of the American Hockey League.
With those absences, the Lightning coaching staff needed to fill the void on the top pairing alongside Eric Brewer. For a short period of time, that role went to Matt Gilroy until he wound up out of the lineup for four games.
So in search of a shutdown presence, coach Guy Boucher turned to veteran Pavel Kubina, who has embraced the challenge and stepped up to provide a presence the team has lacked for a good part of the season.
"We are relying on him a lot as a vet, and he's answering really well,'' Boucher said.
Kubina, in the final season of a two-year deal, has been logging the minutes to match his current role. After playing 20 or more minutes just six times in the first 30 games — and none from Oct. 27 to Dec. 12 — Kubina has been above the 20-minute mark in 15 of the past 16 games. In six of the past 16, the 34-year-old has been above 24 minutes.
Since being asked to take on the expanded role, Kubina has been minus-1 on a team that has been outscored 61-51 in the past 17 games.
"It's been good, I'm getting more of an opportunity, more ice time,'' Kubina said. "Playing with (Brewer), who has been playing well for our team, it's fun to play with him. And I'm just doing everything I can to help this team get better and win more hockey games.''
While offense has been a part of Kubina's game throughout his career — he's been at 30 or more points seven times in 12 full seasons in the NHL — being looked to as a shutdown defenseman is not an unfamiliar role. During the 2002-03 postseason, Kubina's task in the first round of the playoffs was to match up against Washington's top line that included Jaromir Jagr. Kubina was also asked to serve a similar role in Tampa Bay's 2004 run to a Stanley Cup title.
"It's a challenge to play against top lines, and it's not easy, any one of those guys every game they are going to create chances and I just try to do the job defensively,'' he said. "But I've always enjoyed (the role), it's a great challenge for me to play against those top players and it's an honor from the team, the coaches and organization that they give you the chance to play against those guys.''
When the conversation was held to inform Kubina of his expanded role, Boucher presented it as a task for the veteran defenseman to grasp.
"He's been really good, he's been a great soldier and always had a great attitude,'' Boucher said. "I think he understands the urgency of the situation and I feel that he has been terrific in what we have asked of him.''
INJURY UPDATES: C Tom Pyatt suffered a lower body injury during a drill in practice on Thursday and is not expected to play tonight, although Boucher said Pyatt is listed as "day-to-day." That news comes just as Dana Tyrell, who missed Tuesday's game against Boston with an injury, appears ready to return. … RW Ryan Shannon, out since Dec. 21, continues to practice with the team in a red non-contact jersey. Though he was on the ice for the full practice, Shannon did not take part in contact drills.