The Tampa Bay Lightning may very well get their captain Steven Stamkos back for the Stanley Cup Finals. Through the injury, the surgery, the recovery, rehab, set back, and more rehab it appears as though Stamkos is getting closer and closer to returning to the Lightning lineup against the Dallas Stars.
Head coach Jon Cooper told the media that Stammer is “inching closer” to a return and there’s no question that the Bolts could use a jolt from Stamkos – especially on the power play.
Yes, the power play looked better in game two where Tampa Bay went 2-for-3, seeing Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat score off passes from Nikita Kucherov, but the Lightning haven’t had a true threat on the man advantage with Stamkos missing. When they are able to place Stammer in the left circle and Kucherov on the right, the penalty killers can’t over-commit to either side – whereas, the killers have been able to key on Kuch and force other players to step up and score.
By and large, those other players have failed to do so.
Before Point scored on the second power play of game two, the Lightning had gone scoreless in their previous fifteen power play chances. In the Stanley Cup Finals, not only are those chances at a premium, but they can be the difference between winning and losing when a team can’t convert.
We’ve Stamkos on the practice ice with his teammates over the last couple weeks and he was getting some extra work in on Monday with Zach Bogosian after the rest of the team had left the ice.
The addition of Stamkos won’t hurt any of the current lines or chemistry. He won’t immediately come in and play first line minutes. He’ll likely be used sparingly in 5-on-5 while being out there for power plays to launch one timers from the left circle. Cooper appears to be sticking with the 12/6 lineup after having so much success with the 11/7 alignment we’ve seen since game two against the Boston Bruins.
When asked about it, Cooper said he liked it better in this matchup with the Dallas Stars and how it gave some of the players “fresh legs” after being short a forward for much of the postseason. Until Stamkos returns, if he does at all, it’s likely we’ll continue to see Carter Verhaeghe as the twelfth forward.
If I were to guess, I would say the likely return point for Stamkos is game five. It makes sense that on the back side of a back-to-back, bringing in Stamkos – who hasn’t suffered the physical punishment these other players have in the bubble – could provide some energy and some fresh legs to a game that will see a lot of players being somewhat sluggish based on what happens in game four.
Not only that, but game five may be a pivotal moment in this series. Whoever wins game three has a big advantage so based on the results of game four we can either see a team on the cusp of winning the series or we could see a team steal momentum away and flip the series on its head.
Either way, I’ve pivoted from saying there’s less than a 5% chance we see Stamkos in this series to thinking the likelihood is closer to 75-80% Stamkos does suit up before a champion is crowned.