For now, he is the star who is not to be named.
We don’t speak of him, and we don’t ask about him. Presumably, we don’t even think about him.
But that doesn’t stop the Lightning from missing Steven Stamkos.
Tuesday was the six-month anniversary of the Lightning captain’s last appearance in a game, and his return to this postseason appears neither imminent nor certain. Originally sidelined with a core muscle injury akin to a sports hernia, Stamkos suffered a lower-body injury while trying to get back in playing shape during voluntary workouts before the abbreviated training camp at Amalie Arena in July.
That’s all somewhat speculative because the Lightning is not offering details and Stamkos has been unavailable. Coach Jon Cooper does not even want to hear Stamkos’ name during his daily press briefings.
“He’s not available right now. Again, rehabbing,” Cooper said on the eve of the Eastern Conference semifinal series against Boston. “When he is going to be available, I will let you know. There’s no further updates. … It’s pointless to keep asking about it.”
It’s pointless only because the Lightning do not want to go into detail about it, which could be construed as a psychological attempt to minimize his absence. Yet the evidence is right there on the ice.
Going into Tuesday’s night’s Game 2 against the Bruins, the Lightning had not scored a power-play goal in 13 chances through their first six playoff games.
Now, you could say that’s a small sample size and power-play goals are harder to come by in the postseason. But that doesn’t change Tampa Bay’s lack of production. The other seven teams still alive in the postseason had converted on 22.2 percent of their power-play opportunities through the first two rounds going into Tuesday night, which sounds a whole lot better than zero percent.
And it’s hard not to look at Stamkos’ absence as part of the problem.
It’s enough to say that he led the Lightning with 10 power-play goals in the regular season, but it goes far beyond that. Stamkos is a presence on the unit. He is a shooter who requires constant attention from the undermanned penalty kill. When the Lightning reached the Eastern Conference final in 2018, Stamkos had six power-play goals in 17 postseason games.
The simple truth is that Tampa Bay’s power play is much easier to defend without having to worry about Stamkos looming near the left circle and it’s hard for the Lightning to recreate its typical flow without him in the mix.
“Stamkos is a big part of our power play,” Cooper said. “You pull him out and now you have to make adjustments, and different issues arise.”
Stay updated on Tampa Bay’s sports scene
Subscribe to our free Sports Today newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Still, Cooper was not prepared to say the power play had been a problem in the postseason entering Tuesday. He suggested the lack of goals was not necessarily an accurate reflection of how the unit had been playing and pointed out that the Lightning had had relatively few opportunities because first-round opponent Columbus was so stingy about giving up penalties.
“You’re not getting any rhythm. I think that’s tough for the power play,” Cooper said. “You go in game getting four, five (power-play opportunities), all it takes is one goal and all the sudden your guys are feeling good about themselves, so that’s a part of it. I know our stat line is going to say 0-for-10 (on the power play in the first round), but we’ve had some pretty darn good looks and nothing (has gone) in for us. The fact that we didn’t get much opportunity has been tough on our guys.”
It’s going to get only tougher as the postseason continues and injuries pile up. The Lightning went into Tuesday night’s game having to figure out how to replace defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who is a stalwart on the penalty kill and was hurt in a collision in Game 1.
As for Stamkos, 30, the wait continues. The Lightning have been coy before about injuries (they never said Victor Hedman would be available in the Columbus series, and yet he skated nearly 60 minutes in the Game 1 five-overtime marathon), but this feels different. At this point, it’s not even clear whether Stamkos is in Toronto or has returned to Tampa for rehab.
A dozen years ago, the Lightning embarked on one of the most clever marketing ploys in Tampa Bay sports history. With 18-year-old Stamkos expected to be the No. 1 pick in the 2008 draft, a two-word campaign was on billboards and bumper stickers all around the region.
Back then, it was an advertising brainstorm. Now it’s a lament.
Contact John Romano at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @Romano_TBTimes.