With the All-Star break over and many teams buckling down for a playoff push, the Tampa Bay Lightning find themselves in an enviable position. Barring a major disaster, they’re almost guaranteed a postseason spot for the fifth time in the past six years.
It’s no secret that depth has played a role, as has outstanding goaltending from the duo of Andrei Vasilevskiy and Louis Domingue. The biggest difference, however, has been the play of captain Steven Stamkos.
Off to a slow start early on, there were concerns that maybe Stamkos had reached a wall. Did he have another level or were injuries going to cost him his title as an elite player and goal scorer? These were all legitimate questions that got asked time after time after time, especially in the face of another crushing defeat in the Eastern Conference Final.
After spending most of his prime years battling one injury after another, Stamkos looks to have finally found his groove again at the ripe old age of 28. He’ll be 29 in less than a week, though, making the fact he’s playing some of his best hockey since the 2014-15 season a real testament to the work he’s put into reinventing himself as a player amidst numerous obstacles.
Stamkos Sidelined By Blood Clot
Coming off his first healthy regular season since the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign and a trip to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final, Stamkos looked poised to hit the 40-goal mark again in 2015-16 before helping to lead the Lightning on another magical playoff run.
Unfortunately, a blood clot near his right collarbone requiring surgery limited him to 77 games and put his postseason status in serious doubt. A few experts said it was doubtful that Stamkos would be cleared to play in a competitive game less than two months after undergoing such a serious surgery.
He undoubtedly heard that and worked harder than ever to give himself a chance to join his teammates on the ice before their season ended. It paid off, with the Lightning advancing deep into the playoffs and Stamkos being cleared to join them for Game 7 of the 2016 Eastern Conference Final against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Though he registered no points and played limited minutes, it was a miracle seeing the captain back on the ice competing less than two months removed from having surgery to treat an injury that can be life-threatening.
It also gave both the Lightning and Stamkos the trust needed to make a fair deal, as the two parties agreed to an eight-year contract extension mere days before he was set to hit the free agent market. That commitment is one big reason the team’s been a Stanley Cup contender for years, and might be the deal that pushes them from contender status to winner status sooner rather than later.
Stamkos Misses Most of 2016-17 With Major Knee Injury
With a new deal in hand, Stamkos began the 2016-17 season on a tear. By mid-November, he had tallied nine goals and 20 points, the latter of which had him sitting second in the NHL. That prompted many media outlets to list him as one of the favorites to capture the Hart Trophy, given annually to the league’s most valuable player (MVP).
Then disaster struck. A seemingly innocent hit along the boards early in a Nov. 15 game against the Detroit Red Wings resulted in a lateral meniscus tear to Stamkos’ right knee. After weighing all options, the Lightning captain elected to undergo surgery that would repair the ligament, with a recovery timeline of four months.
Stamkos again worked his tail off, hoping to be cleared for game action before the regular season came to a close. It didn’t work out, as the Lightning failed to earn a playoff berth for the first time since the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season despite playing some of their best hockey down the stretch. Their captain, meanwhile, wasn’t as close as many fans hoped at the four-month mark.
While certainly a disappointment for both parties, the long offseason gave a team that had played more postseason games than anyone not named the Chicago Blackhawks and Pittsburgh Penguins time to rest. Stamkos used that extended time off to heal and train harder, with an eye towards the future.
The hard work helped, as Stamkos entered the 2017-18 season ready to put the bitter disappointment from the prior season in the rearview mirror. Playing alongside young phenom Nikita Kucherov, he put up 24 points in the Lightning’s first 13 games. Stamkos also registered a point in each of the team’s first 11 games, a real feat for a player coming off of a number of serious injuries.
Despite the hot start, Stamkos struggled to find consistency over the course of a full season. While he was limited to 78 games played, his 27 goals represented the lowest full-season total since his rookie season of 2008-09. He did post a career-high 59 assists though, leading many to believe he was simply deferring to Kucherov. The numbers bear this out, as the captain finished with a shooting percentage of 12.7, tied for the lowest of his career.
Stamkos Appears Revitalized After Numerous Obstacles
After enduring yet another disappointing playoff exit, Stamkos entered the 2018-19 season with multiple goals in mind. Those were to stay healthy and finally lead his team past the Eastern Conference Final, with the hope of capturing Lord Stanley’s Cup.
He started the season slow, tallying eight goals in the season’s first two months. That prompted questions regarding whether major injuries had taken their toll and this was his best.
Then December rolled around. In 14 games played that month, Stamkos tallied a career-high 14 goals and 21 points. He had two four-point games as well, including notching his first hat trick since October 2014.
Stamkos didn’t stop there, notching six goals in the Lightning’s next 12 games. That brings his total to 28, eclipsing the 27 he produced all of last season. He also competed in his sixth All-Star Game recently, scoring a magnificent goal against Metropolitan Division goaltender Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers.
Now approaching his 29th birthday, Stamkos is undoubtedly playing some of the best hockey of his career. He appears rejuvenated, able to make the correct play on the ice more often than not. He also looks to have found a balance offensively, with 28 goals and 31 assists for 59 total points. If he continues producing the way he has been and remains healthy, it’s not a stretch to think the captain could reach or even surpass his previous career-high of 97 points.
Will that be enough for the Lightning captain to achieve his lifelong dream of winning the Stanley Cup? Nothing’s guaranteed, but it would be fitting for a rejuvenated Stamkos to put the finishing touches on his comeback story by bringing Lord Stanley back to Tampa Bay.
*All statistics courtesy of the Tampa Bay Lightning.