Lightning captain Steven Stamkos has reached the four-month mark in the expected four- to six-month recovery from mid-November right knee surgery.
But coach Jon Cooper was quick to pump the brakes on any thought Stamkos' return is imminent.
"Let's not raise any red flags," Cooper said.
Cooper, however, admitted the fact Stamkos continues to skate and travel with the Lightning has given the team a boost in recent weeks, in morale and leadership.
"There's a light at the end of the tunnel," Cooper said. "That in itself has helped us, having him around, it's really good for our guys."
Said Nikita Kucherov: "He gives me hope that he's coming back."
The million dollar question is when? That's hard to answer. As much as Stamkos has looked good skating, and shooting, he's still yet to fully participate in a team practice with contact. One would think Stamkos would need a few of those tests before playing, and there's only 13 games left.
"He's on his way back," Cooper said. "The one way I guess to make sure he may play is to get into the playoffs. That's what we're trying to do here. He's a part of our franchise, he's the core of our franchise. Until doctors and Steven Stamkos say I'm ready to go, he's not going on the ice. But I know that Steven Stamkos is working his tail off to get back as fast as he can. He's not going to be the one that says, 'I'm not going on.' It's going to be the doctor to tell him he's not going on. That's the great thing about Stamkos."
D Victor Hedman said Stamkos has provided insight and leadership during an 11-2-3 run. "It's a confidence booster to have our leader, to have one of the best players in the league, seeing him skating, shooting the puck, being around the guys," Hedman said. "It's good for us, and for him."
C Vladislav Namestnikov, who re-aggravated his lower body injury in the second period of Monday's game, did not play Tuesday. He will be re-evaluated today. "It's too bad," Cooper said.
Tyler Johnson (lower body) missed his third straight game, and there's no guarantee he plays Thursday against the Maple Leafs.
"The best case scenario is he's back for Toronto," Cooper said. "But I can't sit here and say that's in the cards."
Lost in Brayden Point's brilliant 21st birthday performance Monday, when he scored two goals, was the play of G 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 (26 overall). 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?" Cooper said.
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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).
Quote of the day
"It was a coach come in and direct some feet in some butts."
Cooper on how Lightning improved from flat first period in Monday's game
. You wonder if Namestnikov rushed back too soon from his lower body injury, which he re-aggravated Monday?
. C Byron Froese made a good first impression in Monday's Lightning debut. He brought energy, grit, and had a great scoring chance in the first period.
. Crazy that former Lightning coach Guy Boucher is in conversation for coach of the year in first season with Senators. Well deserved.