BRANDON — The Lightning will be without Steven Stamkos for a while, but coach Jon Cooper isn’t putting a wrap on the captain’s season.
There still are questions about Stamkos’ lower-body injury, among them if it is related to last year’s core muscle issues that needed two surgeries in six months to correct. But Cooper said Friday that he expected Stamkos to return when he’s eligible to come off long-term injured reserve May 5.
“By no means are we sitting here saying his season’s over, not by any means,” Cooper said. “This is just something that he has to go through here for a little bit.”
The Lightning enter tonight’s home game against the Panthers with 13 games remaining in their 56-game regular-season schedule that is scheduled to end May 10. If Stamkos returns May 5, he would be able to play in the final four games, which could be pivotal in playoff positioning in a tight Central Division race.
The Lightning are tied on points with the Hurricanes for first place in the division with 60; Carolina has a game in hand. The Panthers are one point behind.
Stamkos left the April 8 game at Columbus in the third period after he spun around to pass the puck up the ice and then hunched over. He was put on long-term injured reserved retroactive to April 9 on Thursday.
It seems like the Lightning are seeking more clarity on the injury. Cooper said he’d be able to divulge more in the next 24 hours about whether it is related to last year’s issues.
Cooper likened Stamkos’ situation to that of Nikita Kucherov, who went on long-term injured reserve at the beginning of the season because of hip surgery and hasn’t played this year: Let’s get to the playoffs and we’ll have our best two players back when we need them most.
“It’s unfortunate that it’s happened,” Cooper said. “But I always say in these situations, maybe it’s a little short-term pain for long-term gain.”
Before this injury, Stamkos had missed only two games this season; he was put on the COVID-19 protocol list because of what is believed to have been a false positive test result. He led the team in goals when he got hurt with 17 (he is now tied for the lead with Brayden Point) and was second among forwards in ice time. He still leads the team in power-play goals with 10.
“He has had a great season for us, scored a ton of goals, and it’s just a difference maker as far as driving play,” defenseman Ryan McDonagh said. “And you know ultimately he’s going to do whatever he can to get back, you know as quick as he can and help our group. He’s proven that time and time again.
“The guy’s just got a relentless attitude, and there’s no question that when he does come back and he’s ready to suit up, he’s going to give us his best effort, which is going to be an exciting time for us.”
Kucherov, meanwhile, continues to skate with the team; Friday he participated in drills while wearing a gray no-contact jersey. Cooper said he believes Kucherov is ahead of schedule in his rehabilitation but doesn’t expect him to return before the regular season ends.
“I just don’t know how we can make that happen,” Cooper said. “He is not anywhere near going into contact drills or anything like that.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieintheYard.
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