Two massive pieces of the Tampa Bay Lightning’s championship puzzle will be ready to return very soon. Captain Steven Stamkos was seen skating with the team on Tuesday for the first time since April 8. The Lightning dropped an L on the pesky Columbus Blue Jackets that night, but what was thought to be a day-to-day injury has turned into over a month of healing.
Nikita Kucherov hasn’t seen any action whatsoever this season after hip surgery, but he has been practicing in some capacity for a little while now. The thought of having the team’s best player finally back out there is tantalizing, but patience is still a virtue for the time being. Head coach Jon Cooper has said repeatedly that neither player will return before the playoffs, and it looks like he’s sticking to his guns.
The Lightning end the season against the Dallas Stars and the Florida Panthers. So far, the team has handled the Stars pretty easily, losing once. The Panthers have been a different story, with the series tied 3-3. Florida has given Tampa all they can handle in every game except the February 13 tilt when the Bolts pulled off a 6-1 win. Other than that, every game has been a scrap, and if these two meet in the playoffs, expect more of the same.
The Stars are in a dogfight with the Nashville Predators for that all-important final playoff spot in the Discover Central Division. The Lightning have already clinched, so these games are about seeding. No matter who the Lightning play in the first round, it will likely be a long wait between the last game of the regular season, scheduled for May 10, and Game 1 of the playoffs.
This is, of course, because the Vancouver Canucks have so many games left to play in the regular season. Most teams have between two and four games left on the schedule, Vancouver still has eight. Five of those are against the Calgary Flames, who are still technically in the playoff hunt, even 10 points behind the Montreal Canadiens. The other games are against the Winnipeg Jets and Edmonton Oilers, which could effect playoff seeding.
With so much yet to be determined, it’s unlikely the NHL will cancel Vancouver’s remaining games, which will push the last regular-season game to May 19, nine days after the Lightning play their final game. If the Bolts play great in the last few games and win them all, the last thing they’d want is lengthy layoff before the playoffs.
That said, the Lightning could use the break, even if they are red hot these last few games. Yes, it will give the team time to cool off, but it will also give the team time to heal. And not just physically; mentally, this team has been put through a meat grinder, dealing with schedule changes, players in and out of the lineup, numerous back-to-backs, etc.
The regular season is called a “marathon” for good reason, especially if a team goes on a deep playoff run. This season has been anything but that. It has been a sprint to the finish, 56 games crammed into the better part of four months that has strained most teams to the max. The rest the Lightning will get from this little respite will give them a moment to catch their breath and regroup before their chance at immortality. The team is trying to repeat as Stanley Cup champs, and no one is taking that lightly, doing everything they can to ensure they have the best chance possible.
Part of ensuring their success depends on Stamkos and especially Kucherov being unequivocally 100 percent ready to go once they get the go-ahead to resume playing. The captain has played meaningful games for most of the season, so getting him back up to speed should be easier, but he’ll still need time to acclimate himself. Kucherov has been practicing but hasn’t been able to go full bore. More importantly, he hasn’t had any meaningful time on any particular line, so establishing chemistry before playing a game hasn’t happened yet.
Kucherov’s time on the ice right now is akin to training camp. He still needs to be participate regularly in full practices with contact. He also needs time on a specific line before he takes the ice for the first time. His first game of the season will be in the first round of the playoffs against a tough opponent, which means the organization needs to be sure he’s as prepared as possible before he’s officially back in the lineup.
Cooper knows this and will undoubtedly take advantage of the extra time before the playoffs begin. He knows that rushing Kuverhov back only to see him struggle, or even worse, get injured again, would diminish the changes the team will repeat as champions. The Lightning are also hoping to get Jan Rutta back to bolster the defense corp. Victor Hedman has struggled a bit with other D partners, so bringing out the best in him by pairing him with Rutta is another reason the break will benefit the Bolts.
Tampa Bay overcame the loss of Stamkos a year ago and for most of their Cup run, but as good as he is, he has never been the playoff performer that Kucherov is. Brayden Point was excellent in the bubble, but, again, Kucherov was the engine that drove the Lightning to their second title. If the Bolts have to win it all without number 86 at his best, you can kiss the team’s third Stanley Cup goodbye, along with the chance at being a transcendent team.
Frank is a former competitive hockey player at the D3 college level. He’s what you’d call a hockey “lifer” having also worked as a hockey referee, time keeper and assistant youth coach, along with being a longtime member of USA Hockey. Frank comes to THW after contributing content on the Tampa Bay Lightning, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Orlando Magic for BackSportsPage.com.