Bolts Bits: Steven Stamkos progressing, returns to ice

Steven Stamkos returned to the ice Wednesday.

Granted, the center stood on a mat placed on the ice and did little more than stickhandle and gingerly shoot pucks. 

But its a sign the Tampa Bay Lightning are thankful to see, especially as they continue to learn how invaluable Stamkos’ presence in their lineup is.

The Lightning suffered back-to-back shutouts for the first time since November 2003.

Friday, Tampa Bay fell 3-0 at home to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Bolts were then whitewashed, 1-0, by the Columbus Blue Jackets on the road.

It’s the contrast of a team with and without Stamkos that is most jarring. The Bolts’ goals average has gone from 3.13 per game with him to 1.81 without.

The power play has suffered as well. In the 11 games since the loss of the two-time NHL goal-scoring leader, including when he got injured, the Bolts have capitalized on the man advantage just three times.

“The onus is on our forwards,” coach Jon Cooper said. “We have to go to the net harder. We can’t pull up.”

With the exception of a four-game, west coast road trip that started exposing weaknesses, Tampa Bay’s defense has held steady. Over the last five games, Ben Bishop and Anders Lindback have combined to hold opponents to two goals or less in four of those contests.

Standings-wise, Tampa Bay has dropped from first in the Atlantic Division to fourth, only five points behind Boston. Thanks to their strong start, the Lightning still maintain a strong grasp on the Eastern Conference wild card lead despite a 2-5-1 record since Stamkos’ injury.

“We’ve kept status quo,” Cooper said. “We haven’t been giving up more goals. I think that’s been a key for why we’ve had a little success here since 91 has gone down.”

News of Stamkos’ quick-healing ability from surgery to fix a broken leg has to be a relief. Stamkos has set a personal goal of returning Feb. 6, assuming no complications arise in training. He’ll be working with former teammate Gary Roberts until Christmas, then begin a two-a-day routine in January.

The question is, can Tampa Bay hold on that long?

Bolts leaning on youth

With Stamkos and now Ryan Malone out for 3-4 weeks with a broken ankle, Tampa Bay is having to rely on its younger players to carry the team.

“What’s happened so far is, because of our injuries, ice time has been accelerated for a lot of our young guys,” Cooper said. “You look at our forward group, there are six of them I don’t know if they have 82 games between them all.”

That may be a bit of a stretch as players such as Tyler Johnson, Richard Panik, Ondrej Palat and J.T. Brown all entered the season with some NHL experience to their credit.

Overall, nine rookies — the aforementioned group, plus Nikita Kucherov, and defensemen Dmitry Korobov, Mark Barberio, Andrej Sustr and Radko Gudas — have suited up for the Bolts this season.

“Probably not an ideal situation, but we’re eventually going to be a better team for it, especially come spring time,” Cooper said. “It’s a little bit of a trial by fire, but so far all the guys have passed the test.”

Prospects named to WJC camps

The Bolts figure to be well-represented by their prospects at the upcoming IIHF World Junior Championship in Sweden.

Jonathan Drouin, Tampa Bay’s first-round pick in 2013, was named to Team Canada’s preliminary roster.

“Obviously, it’s different for me this year,” Drouin told Halifax’s The Chronicle Herald. “I’m not 17 anymore, so I know I’ve got to go there and be more of a leader. There aren’t many guys coming back from last year, so I have to make sure I use my experience. I’m excited for it. I know what to expect, and I know how much fun all of it is.”

Although he missed 10 of the Mooseheads’ 31 contests this season, Drouin has been dominant in the QMJHL. He ranks second in the league in points with 47 (15 goals and 32 assists) in 21 games.

Also earning invites to their camps were Adam Erne, Tampa Bay’s second overall pick in 2013 who will join the Americans, and Andrey Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay’s first overall selection in 2012 who received an invite to Team Russia’s camp.

Looking ahead

The Lightning will host a two-game homestand the remainder of this week, with the Ottawa Senators visiting on Thursday and the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday.

Tampa Bay will head north to Washington D.C. to face the Capitals on Tuesday. The Lightning will return to the Tampa Bay Times Forum to take on the Detroit Red Wings Thursday, Dec. 12 before setting out on a three-game road trip.