TAMPA — In the matter of Steven Stamkos, the question is: Will the Lightning's star center play again this season?
Coach Jon Cooper responded Thursday by saying "yes."
He admitted it is just a gut feeling but added, "In my heart, I know he's coming back. I have no doubt."
Cooper then doubled down by saying, "I don't think the question is going to be, 'Is he coming back to play this year for the Tampa Bay Lightning?' The question is, 'Is he going to be back (in February) to play for the Canadian Olympic team?' I'm the optimistic coach, but that's how it might turn out."
The only way that happens is if Stamkos — who on Tuesday had a titanium rod inserted into his right tibia, broken during Monday's 3-0 loss to the Bruins — heals in three months, the most optimistic of the speculated timetables.
"But everything is pointing in the right direction," Cooper said. "The surgery went well. Nobody is saying the rod slipped. And he's only 23. He's coming into the prime of his career."
How can Cooper be so optimistic just three days after Stamkos was injured? "Everybody is about hope, and if you snuff out the flame, what do we have?"
FLAME ON: The Lightning seemed under everyone's radar despite all season being at or near the top of the Eastern Conference — that is, until Stamkos was injured and more than 20 reporters showed up at Tuesday's morning skate in Montreal.
Cooper and captain Marty St. Louis used that in speeches before a 2-1 shootout win over the Canadiens.
"People were just maybe beginning to say, 'Wow, these guys are for real,' " Cooper said. "And 91 (Stamkos) goes down and all of a sudden everybody is watching us. Everybody is waiting for the slipper to fall off the foot, and that was our message to the guys: We can be looked at as a one-man team or looked at as a team. The guys took a little bit of ownership with that."
"Hopefully," RW B. J. Crombeen said, "we show we're a great team without him and only get better when he gets back."
MEDICAL MATTERS: D Mark Barberio missed the final 12 minutes of Thursday's 5-1 win over the Ducks with an undisclosed injury believed to be minor. … D Sami Salo (lower body) should be ready to play on the upcoming four-game western trip. … D Keith Aulie (lower body) is "a ways away," Cooper said. … F Tom Pyatt (broken collarbone) likely won't play until after Thanksgiving.
GOOD MOVE: Brett Connolly is a natural right wing but for now is centering the No. 1 line with wings St. Louis and Alex Killorn. Connolly, 21, the first-round draft pick in 2010, played some center last season at AHL Syracuse and did well enough at the position during training camp that he moved into Stamkos' spot.
"Just try to chip in offensively as much as I can to help the team win," said Connolly, who has zero points in two games at center but is plus-1 and has won 10 of 17 faceoffs. "With 'Stammer' out, it's an opportunity for myself. It's an opportunity for a lot of guys to step up."
CONNECTIONS: C Valtteri Filppula runs a summer hockey school in his native Finland with countryman and Ducks LW Teemu Selanne, 43, the league's oldest player. … Ducks LW Patrick Maroon in 2006-07 played for Cooper at St. Louis of the junior North American league.
NEXT TIME: The Lightning is without Stamkos, but Anaheim on Thursday was without its best player, C Ryan Getzlaf (upper body).
"I don't think we saw their best," St. Louis said. "It will be a different game" Nov. 22 in Anaheim.
ODDS AND ENDS: The Lightning is 7-0-0 against the West. … Rookie RW J.T. Brown got his first point of the season, an assist. … Cooper joked Filppula played so well because the GM and coach of the Finnish Olympic team watched from the press box. … RW Pierre-Cedric Labrie and D Dmitry Korobov were scratched.