Steven Stamkos is “inching his way closer” to returning but probably won’t play for the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final on Monday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC SN, TVAS), coach Jon Cooper said.
The Lightning trail the best-of-7 series after losing Game 1 to the Dallas Stars 4-1 at Rogers Place in Edmonton on Saturday.
“You don’t get this many chances to be where we are and he wants to be a part of it, which he has,” Cooper said. “He’s collectively helped the group on the mental side of things, but he wants to be part of it on the ice as well. We’re not sure when that’ll be. We’re hopeful he’ll come back at some point in this series, but there’s no way we can tag that. When he’s not on the ice, he’s been an influential leader off the ice.
“I guess there’s always a chance (he plays in Game 2), but as of now, I don’t think so. You’ll have to tune in and find out.”
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Stamkos has been unfit to play during the Stanley Cup Playoffs but recently resumed skating and has been participating in occasional optional practices and morning skates, including Sunday. The 30-year-old sustained a lower-body injury before training camp for the postseason began July 13.
Stars coach Rick Bowness, who was an assistant for the Lightning from 2013-18, said he expects Stamkos to play in the Cup Final.
“He’s a great player and he changes the whole look on the power play, so that’s a big factor,” Bowness said. “You take three penalties like we did in one period last night, they’re going to do some damage with Steven out there. It just gives them another offensive weapon. Where they use him, again, it’s on-ice awareness. But Steven’s a great player, he’s a great person and he’s a captain. So we’re expecting him to play at some point and we’ll just have to see how he’s utilized. But immediately, you’re concerned [with] the impact he’ll have on their power play.”
Tampa Bay is 10-for-59 (17 percent) on the power play in 20 postseason games but has not converted since Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final against the New York Islanders (0-for-14).
Stamkos participated in drills with the top power-play unit during training camp in July but did not participate in a full practice until after the Lightning arrived in Toronto, the hub city for the Eastern Conference through the second round of the playoffs, on July 26. He had a setback after that and has yet to return to a full practice.
“If [he does return], you have to make sure the player’s conditioned enough,” Cooper said of Stamkos. “You need guys to be able to contribute. He wouldn’t want that, either. Nobody wants to go into a game and sit on the bench the whole time. You have to be ready to play minutes and contribute. But we have a full medical staff, and Steven will be the first to tell you if he can go or not. If that time comes, he’ll be put in to play, not just sit on the bench.”
Stamkos, who was second on the Lightning this season with 66 points (29 goals, 37 assists) in 57 games, last played on Feb. 25. He had surgery to repair a core muscle injury on March 2 and missed Tampa Bay’s final five games before the NHL season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.
If Stamkos does return, it will be similar to the one he made during the 2016 playoffs. That season, he missed eight weeks recovering from surgery to clear a blood clot near his right collarbone before returning against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final. He played 11:55 in a 2-1 loss.
“An 80 percent Stammer is better than most players in this League,” Lightning forward Blake Coleman said. “Stammer’s a superstar in this League and to some extent, it doesn’t matter how much time he’s had off. The way he is, the way he carries himself, he’ll give you everything he’s got. Not sure if we see him or not but if we do, it’ll be a great boost to our team, not only on the ice, but with the leadership in the room. This team follows him even when he’s not in the room. I’m sure his impact would be huge, and we’d be excited to have him.”