DETROIT — This didn't look good.
Lightning captain Steven Stamkos struggled to put any pressure on his right leg as he slowly skated off the ice midway through the first period of Tuesday's 4-3 win over the Red Wings. He stumbled as he tried to get into the visitors' dressing room at Joe Louis Arena, and didn't return, sparking concern on the bench.
"You hope it's not serious," center Brian Boyle said. "He usually comes back. He didn't come back."
The Lightning didn't have much of an update on Stamkos after the game. Coach Jon Cooper refused to speculate on the severity of the injury, saying Stamkos will be re-evaluated today on the team's off day in Buffalo.
"Hopefully it's something minor," Cooper said. "We'll have to wait and see."
But, as Cooper points out, this is "not anything like" what happened almost exactly three years ago, when Stamkos broke his right tibia after crashing into the post Nov. 11, 2013 in Boston. This time, Stamkos was battling along the boards with Red Wings' Gustav Nyquist during a penalty kill shift midway through the first period. Stamkos' right leg tangled awkwardly with Nyquist as the captain fell to the ice. Stamkos got up, grabbed the back of his right knee and skated off.
"You don't want to lose players, especially the best player in the world," defenseman Victor Hedman said. "The start he's been off to, he's been unbelievable. He's our leader.
Stamkos has been playing some of the best hockey, his first-period goal Tuesday tying him for the NHL points-lead with 20. Stamkos' nine goals lead the Lightning.
It has been a storybook start for Stamkos, who signed an eight-year, $68 million extension with Tampa Bay on June 29. He's mind finally clear of distractions and contract questions, Stamkos was healthy and could finally focus just on hockey. Stamkos and linemates Nikita Kucherov and Vladislav Namestnikov have been on a roll.
And Kucherov stepped up Tuesday, his two goals giving him three in the past two games and eight for the season. Kucherov scored the winner with just over one minute left in regulation to seal the victory, the Lightning's second straight on a back to back.
The Lightning has played without Stamkos before, not just in 2013-14 when he broke his leg, but also the first two rounds of last year's playoffs as the All-Star was recovering from a blood clot. Like then, Tampa Bay is also without Anton Stralman (upper body), who missed his second straight game. Wing Jonathan Drouin (upper body) missed his seventh straight game.
"It's something we've been through before," Cooper said. "You never want to lose your top goal scorer, your captain. But not too long ago we were in this situation. (The team) showed a lot of guts on back to back to get this one."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @TBTimes_JSMith.