TAMPA, Fla. — Forty-three games into the season, and the Tampa Bay Lightning are doing more than fine without Steven Stamkos. In fact, they’ve thrived despite one of the most painful, one of the most gruesome, setbacks imaginable.
Who saw this coming?
Most were prepared to write the epitaph on Tampa Bay’s playoff chances after the Bolts’ star center broke his right tibia on Nov. 11 at TD Garden. What has happened since, though, is a testament to the ability of Jon Cooper’s team to survive, so much so that playing past mid-April seems like a real possibility.
There are so many faces who have contributed to the cause: Marty St. Louis, still timeless; Valtteri Filppula, a smart addition; Ben Bishop, a steady presence between the pipes. There are others who have played a part as well, and this is the greatest development of the Lightning’s rise: It takes a group to move past a major individual loss, and Tampa Bay has shown life didn’t end on that dreary day in Boston.
There remain questions to be answered. Sure, the season’s first half was stellar — the Lightning set a franchise-best mark at the halfway point with a 25-12-4 record (54 points) and currently stand at 26-13-4 (56 points) — but it remains to be seen if they can close with as much fervor as their start. Tests remain.
Will Stamkos return? Will Bishop continue to be a rock-solid presence in the net? How will St. Louis handle his awkward Team Canada snub, made possible by Steve Yzerman, the Lightning’s vice president and general manager?
It’s hard to find cracks in the Bolts’ foundation, despite key developments to come. If Stamkos’ absence failed to rattle this team — Tampa Bay was 12-4-0 before his injury — then it’s difficult to see how any obstacle to follow will do so. The Bolts rank in the league’s top half in scoring, at 12th with 2.74 goals per game. But more impressively, they rank fifth by allowing 2.33 goals per game. They own a balanced threat.
The Bolts are a better team with Stamkos, but they’ve evolved without him. That results in a first half worth remembering.
Marty St. Louis
Credit the 38-year-old veteran for growing his game on and off the ice in Stamkos’ absence. He leads the Lightning in points (40) and goals (19), and he has helped fill a leadership void after former captain Vinny Lecavalier began a new chapter in his career with the Philadelphia Flyers. What more could you ask from St. Louis? Heâs one of the largest Olympic snubs after Team Canada named its roster for the Sochi Games on Tuesday. Stamkos, despite only playing 17 games this season, will be the Lightning’s lone representative on the national squad when the Winter Olympics begin Feb. 7. Watch St. Louis closely in the season’s second half, to see if the absence serves as a spark. He’s the Bolts’ steadiest, most sound player for a reason. He’s a proud man, but he’s also a consummate professional. If he continues this level of play, Tampa Bay will remain a threat in the Eastern Conference.
Searching for one reason why Tampa Bay has sustained its early success, unlike last season when a hot start fizzled? Look no further than Bishop, who owns a 22-5-3 record with a 1.86 goals-against average and a .935 save percentage. The five-year veteran, for the most part, has been consistent all winter. He lost three consecutive starts from Nov. 16-22 against the Phoenix Coyotes, Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks. But the Bolts have only lost five times since that stretch when he has appeared between the pipes. He suffered an apparent right-hand injury early in a loss to the Edmonton Oilers on Sunday, and he remains day-to-day with the condition. If he stays healthy, there’s no reason to suspect anything other than some of the league’s best goaltending to continue. He’s tied for second in the NHL in wins. Heâs also tied for first in the league with four shutouts.
Vinny Lecavalier’s return to Tampa Bay Times Forum on Nov. 27 brought out the best in what hockey can be.
Lecavalier, a staple in the Tampa Bay region since the Lightning drafted him first overall in 1998, returned to his former home with the Flyers on a night that was admittedly awkward for him. Still, he received loud ovations and sentimental video tributes for his contributions to the Bolts throughout 14 seasons. The Vinny Lecavalier Foundation also received a sizable donation for its work in the community to help kids and families battling pediatric cancer and blood disorders. In truth,little will be remembered about what happened on the ice that night. Tampa Bay won 4-2, and Lecavalier scored a power-play goal in the third period. Rather, the moment will be recalled as a chance to recognize a former leader and all he offered to a franchise that valued him.
The 23-year-old center has become a valuable contributor in his short time with Tampa Bay. He has 23 points and 12 assists, which makes him one of the Bolts’ most consistent producers behind veteran names such as St. Louis, Valtteri Filppula and Teddy Purcell. He only appeared in 14 games with the Lightning last season (six points and three goals), so he spent 62 games with the Syracuse Crunch in the American Hockey League honing his craft. The effort has led to strong returns, as he and othershave had to take on larger roles with Steven Stamkosâ injury. His ceiling appears high.
The Lightning boast seven players with ties to the organization who made Olympic rosters.
And with St. Louis’ awkward snub by Team Canada, it’s easy to argue they should have had at least eight. Stamkos’ placement on Team Canada headlines the list, but other Tampa Bay players bound for the Olympics include center Filppula (Finland), wingers Ondrej Palat (Czech Republic) and Richard Panik (Slovakia), plus defensemen Radko Gudas (Czech Republic) and Sami Salo (Finland). Goalie Kristers Gudlevskis (Latvia), a member of the Syracuse Crunch, the Bolts’ American Hockey League affiliate, also will represent his nation. Once the Olympic break ends, the Lightning begin a four-game road trip before returning to Tampa for a six-game home stand. The schedule sets up well for the Bolts after the Olympics. In addition to eight home games in March, they play six of seven games at Tampa Bay Times Forum in April to close the regular season.
KEEP AN EYE ON
Steven Stamkos’ progress
Imagine how good the Lightning can become if their greatest scoring threat returns. Tampa Bay has fared better than expected without him in the lineup, but this easily could be a playoff team if he comes back sometime in the season’s second half. Stamkos would offer the assumed production — he had 14 goals in 17 games before his injury — and his re-entry into the lineup would be a psychological victory for a franchise that has a strong chance to make the postseason for the first time since 2011. In the early days after Stamkos’ injury, it seemed unlikely that such an unsightly event could allow for his return before next season. But he has skated in recent weeks, in addition to continuing other rehab work. He appears on track to make one of the more remarkable recoveries in recent memory.
SECOND HALF PROJECTION
A postseason berth isn’t out of the question. In fact, if Stamkos returns sometime soon and Bishop continues his current level of play, the playoffs should be an expectation. Jon Cooper has made a strong early argument for being one of the NHL’s best coaches this season. The Lightning appear more balanced than the loose-and-reckless group that skidded under former leader Guy Boucher last season. Tampa Bay is third in the Eastern Conference with 56 points, nine behind the Pittsburgh Penguins for the top seed. How many expected the Lightning to be in contention this late, especially without Stamkos for most of the winter? That’s a credit to Tampa Bay’s resilience.