Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos took morning skate prior to Game Two of the Stanley Cup Final today. With his team down a game in the best-of-seven series there couldn’t be a better time for him to come back. Head coach Jon Cooper refused to rule him out entirely for Game Two this evening, although Stamkos did spend extra time on the ice with other scratches at morning skate.
Stamkos hasn’t played since February 25 against the Toronto Maple Leafs when he went down with a core muscle injury after posting an assist in 12:30 of ice time. The helper extended his point streak at the time to 15 straight games (12-10-22). Stamkos had surgery in early March and would have been ready for the return to play had he not injured his leg in Phase 2 skates prior to the bubble. Stamkos has suffered two setbacks from that leg injury since.
Thanks to the deep run by the Lightning, the Bolts will get their on and off-ice leader back soon at a time when they desperately need a jolt. How big will the Stamkos Bump be?
First of all it will be a decidedly different look for the Lightning if they elect to go back to 12 forwards. Cooper has been running seven D and 11 forwards for most of the playoffs. Seven defenseman gives you the chance to dress an extra player for special teams or depth on the back end, but can put you behind the eight ball since you don’t have four full lines. Case in point: the 10-minute misconduct taken by Pat Maroon at the end of the second period meant the Lightning were down to 10 forwards for the first half of the third period. While that penalty didn’t lose the game for the Bolts, it certainly meant dropping to three lines and an extra forward for that stretch. For a team that has some top fowards that appear to be tiring, that’s a big deal.
Stamkos will be theoretically game fresh, but also off the pace to start. Now, Stamkos is a superstar player. The former first-overall draft pick will certainly have an easier time catching up than many other players would. But after the initial adrenaline wears off, how effective will he be?
In order for the Stamkos Bump to result in a win for Tampa Bay, a few things have to happen. First, Stamkos has to generate threatening opportunities. Taking nothing away from the Dallas Stars defensively because they’ve been awesome, but focusing on just one major line makes the job easier. With Stamkos back in the lineup, it now gives Tampa two legitimate scoring lines if they can generate chances. Stamkos and his linemates must find a way threaten as often as possible against a stingy Dallas team defense.
The other major place for Stamkos to make an impact is the power play. Going just 1-for-19 in this latest stretch, the Lightning power play has been shockingly quiet considering the talent level. A player like Stamkos who has a pure shot and great vision can really make a major impact on the momentum of a game. If Stamkos can find space on his off-wing to set up the one-timer it would make a huge difference. When Stars goaltender Anton Khudobin has been square to the shooter he stops almost everything. Getting him to move laterally and not giving him time to get set are two major keys to scoring goals against him. So far no one has really been successful in doing so.
Cooper said he knows that Stamkos wants to come back and doesn’t want to rush him until his conditioning suggests he will succeed. Stamkos is competitive enough that he wants to be out there making a difference as soon as possible. Trailing 1-0 in the series is the most tempting time to stick him back out there, but it appears the Lightning will wait one more game.
But hey, you never know. Maybe that’s why on Sunday Cooper said “that’s why you have to tune in and find out.”
We will all tune in to find out.