The Tampa Bay Lightning came two wins shy of winning the Stanley Cup last season, but they’re already through Round One as the franchise chases its second championship. And as difficult as the pursuit of Cup No. 2 is going to be, the Lightning’s chances are going to improve that much more if they can start to get healthy as the playoff wear on.
Tampa Bay got some good news in that regard ahead of Game 1 of the second-round matchup against the New York Islanders.
At Tuesday’s practice, Steven Stamkos took the ice for the first time since undergoing surgery to remove a blood clot that was in his arm. The most incredible part about Stamkos’ return is that it comes three weeks after he had surgery to remove the clot, which is one week ahead of what was given as the earliest timeline for return, and well ahead of the worst-case scenario, which was a three-month absence from the lineup for Stamkos.
Stamkos took part in line rushes, but sat out contact drills. The issue moving forward will be when Stamkos will be cleared for contact, and there’s no definite timeline on when that could be. According to the Tampa Bay Times’ Joe Smith, Stamkos said the “million dollar question” will be how long he needs to remain on blood thinners before getting back in the lineup.
However, say what you will about the loss of Steven Stamkos from the Lightning lineup as the post-season approached, but Tampa Bay has enough offensive firepower to makeup for sniper’s goal scoring ability. The void that has been arguably harder to fill is that left by Anton Stralman, one of the Lightning’s top pairing blueliners, who broke his left fibula just weeks before the playoffs began. But the Lightning got some promising news on that front, too.
Unlike Stamkos, Stralman hasn’t practiced since his injury, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be back in the second round. In fact, Lightning coach Jon Cooper said he’s “hopeful” that the defenseman will be able to play against the Islanders in Round Two.
“He’s not even skating right now, but we’re hopeful he’ll make an appearance in the series,” Cooper said.
Stralman’s importance defensively is hard to understate. Outside of Victor Hedman, there’s no blueliner in Tampa Bay as important as Stralman. The 29-year-old is as effective at moving the puck as anyone in the Lightning lineup, and he’s defensively sound while still being able to produce a fair amount of offense, as evidenced by his nine goals and 34 points in 73 games this season. Even without Stralman, though, Cooper was impressed with how the Lightning fared defensively in Round One.
“We held them to eight goals in a five-game series, only one power play goal,” he said. “If you can do that, you’re giving yourself a really good chance to win. For the most part, I thought we played pretty well for four of those games, and our goalie had to bail us out in one of them.”
But when Stralman comes back, the Lightning are going to have another solid piece on their blueline. If he’s completely healthy and up to game speed, and if Stamkos can return shortly thereafter, it’s going to be hard to slow down this impressive Bolts roster.