Times beat reporter Joe Smith and ESPN national writer Joe McDonald discuss the potential return of Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, the MVP race (Nikita Kucherov?), the Olympics debate and an uncertain summer for the Bolts in this episode of our Lightning Strikes! podcast.
Slater Koekkoek's recall is likely insurance with the lower body injury suffered by veteran Jason Garrison Thursday.
Slater Koekkoek is finally on his way back to the NHL.
Koekkoek, 23, was recalled Friday by the Lightning, likely insurance with the lower body injury suffered by veteran Jason Garrison Thursday. There's no official update on Garrison today, though he was seen post-game walking around without any brace or crutches.
Koekkoek has played in 29 games for Tampa Bay this season, but his last one was Jan. 8. With the emergence of defenseman Jake Dotchin, and Luke Witkowski sticking due to waivers, Koekkoek had to remain in AHL Syracuse. Koekkoek, a former first-round pick, has done well, with two goals and nine assists in 38 games for the Crunch.
From talking to Crunch GM Julien BriseBois recently, Koekkoek handled his demotion well, and it was a matter of time before he was back.
"He's been pretty solid for us," BriseBois said. 'He's been pretty consistent. He's gone down there, and you can tell night in, night out he wants to be one of the best players, and he is one of the best players. He keeps progressing and eventually we'll see him back in Tampa."
With Koekkoek back, the Lightning could still have Witkowski remain in the fourth-line forward role he's been in for the past few weeks. …
Peter Budaj has made just two starts with the Lightning since getting acquired from the Kings in the Ben Bishop trade Feb. 27.
With the Lightning's playoff chances on the line in a must-win game against Boston, veteran backup Peter Budaj gets the start in net.
Budaj, 34, has made just two starts with Tampa Bay since getting acquired from the Kings in the Ben Bishop trade Feb. 27. But he's been good in both, including making 26 saves in a 3-2 win against the Rangers 10 days ago.
Budaj has strong numbers in Boston, 4-1-0 with a 1.19 goals against average in his career in starts at the TD Garden. The Lightning will need a great game from Budaj after allowing five goals in each of the past three games.
Tampa Bay badly needs this game, trailing Boston by five points for the second wild card spot. The Lightning has a game in hand and two head-to-head matchups, but can ill afford giving the Bruins any points tonight. Boston has lost three straight, just like Tampa Bay.
"With how many games are left, and the standings, it's going to be a feisty game out there," wing Jonathan Drouin said. …
Steven Stamkos said progress in his recovery from mid-November right knee surgery has been slow.
Steven Stamkos was once again the last Lightning player to leave the ice following today's morning skate in Boston.
There's no question Stamkos is pushing hard to return as soon as he can, especially with his team fighting for its playoff life with 10 games to go. But Stamkos' said progress in his recovery from mid-November right knee surgery has been slow.
Stamkos reiterates the standings will not factor in his return date, only when he feels 100-percent comfortable. And he's not sure if that'll happen by the end of the regular season.
"The knee is a tricky situation," Stamkos said. "It's something I've never had to deal with before. It's all new to me. There's a lot of movements that a knee is a big part of when you're skating. A lot of things you have to teach yourself over again when you're out as long as I was. I hope I'm on the right path. But time is kind of running out. I hope there's enough time I can help out or we can get back in the mix and get in the playoffs and hope to be ready then. I'll continue to take it day by day." …
Vladislav Namestnikov returns to the lineup tonight after missing three games with a lower body injury.
C Vladislav Namestnikov returns to the lineup tonight after missing three games with a lower body injury. He centered the second line during today’s morning skate between Alex Killorn and Jonathan Drouin.
C Cedric Paquette (lower body) skated but wore the no-contact red jersey. C Tyler Johnson (lower body) was not on the ice. Associate coach Rick Bowness, who addressed the media this morning, said he did not have a timetable on when those two will return.
Also, nothing new to report on C Steven Stamkos, who continues to participate in practices and morning skates.
The Lightning face the Coyotes tonight. It begins the night four points behind the Maple Leafs for the final wild card spot. The Lightning have the schedule makers to thank for tonight’s matchup. The Coyotes have the second-fewest points in the league and are playing the second of back-to-back games. They lost 3-1 on Monday night in Nashville.
But, the Lightning have to return to the form that enabled it to claw back into the playoff picture and not play like it did during consecutive losses to the Maple Leafs (5-0) and Capitals (5-3).
Vladislav Namestnikov returned to practice this morning and said he expects to play Tuesday.
C Vladislav Namestnikov returned to practice this morning and said he expects to play Tuesday when the Lightning host the Coyotes
C Cedric Paquette also practiced today but was wearing a red no-contact jersey. C Tyler Johnson, the third of the three centers injured March 9 against the Wild, still hasn’t practiced.
The lines during practice: Palat, Point, Kucherov; Killorn, Gourde, Erne; Dumont, Namestnikov, Drouin; Brown, McKegg, Witkowski.
Every game is a big game with 11 games remaining and two points out of the second wild card spot heading into tonight’s Maple Leafs-Bruins game. But Tuesday’s is a bit bigger being the Coyotes are 29th out of 30 teams in points and they play tonight in Nashville.
Coach Jon Cooper’s quote of the day: “There’s still a lot of fight left in the dog.”
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos took another step towards his return Friday, encouraged with how he felt after his first full team practice since mid-November knee surgery.
But coach Jon Cooper made it clear that by no means is Stamkos' return imminent. And Stamkos admitted he wasn't sure if he'll be back by the end of the regular season, which has 12 games left.
This week marks the four month mark in the expected 4-6 month recovery, but Stamkos said the four-month expectation was out of the window right away. It's somewhere in the middle.
"When it's 100 percent, I'll be back," Stamkos said Friday, his first comments since surgery. "It's a question I can't answer. I've had a lot of ups and downs in this rehab process, where it feels like it's never going to get better. Then you have a week where it goes through the roof in regards to how you're feeling.
"I'll be playing when it feels ready. And I can't say it feels ready right now. But it was a start." …
Brayden Point has been arguably the Lightning's most consistent forward this season.
There are many that are surprised that Lightning rookie Brayden Point made the team out of camp, much less smoothly stepping in as No. 1 center in a playoff push.
But Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly isn't one of them.
Rielly, who played with Point in juniors with the Moose Jaw Warriors, always felt the 5-foot-10, 166-pound center had the drive and skills to succeed in the NHL.
"I remember watching him at world juniors when I was in Toronto and telling the guys how good he was," Rielly told the Times. "He's always been an underdog a little bit because of his size, but I think he's coming into his own, having an outstanding year and I'm really happy for him."
Point has been arguably the team's most consistent forward this season. And he's been on a roll since returning from an upper-body injury in late January, with 12 points (nine goals, three assists) in the last 18 games. He's been the team's No. 1 center the past three games since Tyler Johnson (lower body) has been sidelined.
Rielly met Point when the Lightning forward was a 15-year-old callup with Moose Jaw. …
Joe Smith and Brian Engblom make the case for Nikita Kucherov, pictured, as an MVP candidate.
Times beat reporter Joe Smith and Lightning color analyst Brian Engblom discuss the behind-the-scenes changes that have sparked the team's remarkable run in this episode of our Lightning Strikes! podcast. We also make the case for Nikita Kucherov as an MVP candidate, talk about Brian Boyle's emotional return to Tampa and the emergence of rookie Brayden Point. Listen here:
"It's huge, it's Game 7 again," defenseman Victor Hedman said of tonight's game.
There's no question tonight's Lightning game with the Maple Leafs has plenty of sizzle, and a lot at stake.
Brian Boyle's likely emotional return to Tampa Bay is a storyline, but even he says to keep in perspective how big this game is for the playoff race. The Lightning is tied with the Islanders for the final wild card spot, Toronto one point behind and a game in hand.
"It's huge, it's Game 7 again," defenseman Victor Hedman said. "All the games will be Game 7 attitude for us. We know it'll be a packed building, fans are going to be loud. Really looking forward to it."
The Lightning will still be short-handed, with centers Tyler Johnson, Vladislav Namestnikov and Cedric Paquette all out with lower-body injuries. Their status for Saturday's game against the Capitals is unknown.
But this will be the first of two remaining head-to-head matchups with the Leafs (the other April 6 in Toronto), which could go a long way in determining who makes the postseason. Tampa Bay is riding a four-game winning streak, on a 12-2-3 run.
But coach Jon Cooper cautions this game is not a be all, end all. …
"Obviously they got rid of me, they traded me," Brian Boyle said., "I guess they didn't need me that much.''
Veteran center Brian Boyle knows there will naturally be some emotions popping up during warmups Thursday night, when he faces his former Lightning teammates for the first time since a deadline deal to Toronto.
There are some great friendships and memories he built in his two-plus seasons in Tampa Bay, including back-to-back playoff runs. A reunion dinner tonight could be in the cards.
But when the puck drops there will also be motivation, the Lightning having shipped Boyle, 32, to the Maple Leafs Feb. 28 for prospect Byron Froese and a second round pick. Tampa Bay is 6-1-1 since the deadline, pulling to a tie with the Islanders for the final wild card spot.
"Obviously they got rid of me, they traded me - I guess they didn't need me that much," Boyle quipped with a smile. "So I've got to go out and prove, 'Listen, I'm on this team now. I'm here to win.'"
Boyle wasn't upset with the Lightning, doesn't have any ill will. It's more that this will be a huge game for both teams, the Maple Leafs just one point behind the Lightning (with a game in hand). With Toronto coming off what Boyle called an "embarrassing" loss to the Panthers, this will be a ticked-off team coming to Amalie Arena. …
Peter Budaj makes a save on the Rangers' Rick Nash.
Lost in Brayden Point's brilliant 21st birthday performance Monday was the play of veteran backup Peter Budaj.
The Lightning might not have had a chance in its 3-2 win over the Rangers had it not been for Budaj, who made 13 first-period saves to keep it close. Budaj, making his first start in 10 days, thwarted a Chris Kreider breakaway on the opening shift.
"He doesn't stop that, who knows where our momentum goes?" coach Jon Cooper said.
Budaj's play allowed the Lightning to survive a bad first period tied. And with the game tied 2-2 in the third, he made another great stop on a Jimmy Vesey backdoor chance off the rush.
"Without him, it would have been a different game for sure," Point said.
Budaj has made just two starts for the Lightning, a loss in Pittsburgh Mar. 3. The fact Budaj is able to perform so well in this role could play dividends down the stretch (and a strong audition for the backup spot next year). Starter Andrei Vasilevskiyi has been hot, 5-0-1 in his last six starts, but he can't play all of the final 14 games.
As Cooper said, Monday was Budaj's "turn in the rotation." And he certainly didn't disappoint. …
Four days ago, Lightning center Vladislav Namestnikov had to be helped off the Amalie Arena with what appeared to be a serious leg injury.
But here was Namestnikov Monday, participating in the morning skate at Madison Square Garden, and a possibility to play tonight against the Rangers, per coach Jon Cooper. Namestnikov said he feels better, that he just got tangled up with Wild's Zach Parise near the boards Thursday.
"I got lucky," Namestnikov said. "It could have been worse."
While Namestnikov could return, neither Tyler Johnson nor Cedric Paquette will play tonight, Cooper said. Both also suffered lower body injuries Thursday. Cooper said Johnson is on the trip, which ends Tuesday in Ottawa, but Paquette is not.
NEW GUY: It's been a whirlwind few weeks for center Byron Froese, who was acquired from the Maple Leafs in the Brian Boyle trade Feb. 29. Froese was recalled today, joining the Lightning skate and there's a "good chance" he'll make his Tampa Bay debut tonight, Cooper said. …