Loss to Maple Leafs hurts, but Stamkos’ injury hurts more as Lightning fight for playoffs

The Lightning had hoped Steven Stamkos could be back in action by now. Instead, it sounds like he may miss the rest of the regular season, putting Tampa Bay’s playoff hopes in peril.

Over the course of the campaign, the Lightning have learned to live without Steven Stamkos. Has it been easy? Not in the least, but Tampa Bay has managed to stay ensconced in the Eastern Conference wild-card race despite all the injury troubles. Even after the trade deadline saw a few familiar faces, the Lightning have managed to piece together a 6-2-1 record in their past nine games to put themselves in a position to sneak into a post-season berth.

The hope, however, was that Stamkos would be back for the final playoff push. Out since Nov. 15 with a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee, the initial timeline for Stamkos’ return following knee surgery was four-to-six months. Well, the early end of that timeline is up as of Thursday, and with 12 games remaining in the Lightning’s season, it doesn’t appear Stamkos is going to be getting back into action any time soon.

Despite the fact Stamkos has been taking the ice in recent weeks, TSN’s Bob McKenzie reported that it’s “highly, highly unlikely” the Lightning captain will be able to get back into action before the end of the regular season. If Tampa Bay makes the post-season, it’s a different story, and the door might be wide open for a Stamkos return in the first round or beyond, should the Lightning get that far. But after a 5-0 loss at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs Thursday night, it’s starting to look like making the playoffs could be a pretty sizeable “if.”

According to THN’s Playoff Chances, dropping a crucial wild-card game to Toronto saw Tampa Bay’s chance at reaching the post-season drop by 13 percent. Meanwhile, the Maple Leafs increased their chances by 24 percent. There’s more at work there than one loss, too. 

Consider the Lightning’s schedule down the stretch. Of the 12 games the Lightning have remaining, seven are against teams currently holding a post-season position. Worse yet, four of those games are against current divisional leaders, including two against the Montreal Canadiens, one against the Presidents’ Trophy-race leading Washington Capitals and one against the Chicago Blackhawks, who’ve been one of the league’s hottest teams over the past few weeks. Not to mention the Lightning have an April 6 game against the Maple Leafs, which could go a long way in deciding the fate of both teams.

It was always going to be a battle for the Lightning to get back into a post-season position after a shaky start to the year, but Tampa Bay was playing well enough in recent weeks that they were seriously pushing for the final wild-card spot, entrenched in a blow-for-blow battle with the Maple Leafs and New York Islanders. But the Lightning’s climb got that much tougher last week when two of their every-game pivots went down with injury. During a March 9 tilt with the Minnesota Wild, Tampa Bay lost Tyler Johnson and Cedric Paquette to lower-body injuries and both have missed the past four games.

With Johnson and Paquette out, in addition to the loss of Stamkos, the Lightning have been remarkably thin down the middle over their past four outings. So thin, in fact, that Brayden Point, who was averaging less than 16 minutes per game at this point last week, has seen his average ice time jump up well beyond the 20-minute mark over his past four outings. In the game immediately following the injuries to Johnson and Paquette, Point played 22:11. He followed that up with just under 22 minutes in the next two contests, and his lowest ice time since the injuries was Thursday’s game, in which he skated 20:13. That’s still four minutes more than what he was averaging before Johnson and Paquette went down.

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And that brings us back to Stamkos. 

Everyone knows Stamkos brings with him scoring potential unlike just about anyone on the entire Tampa Bay roster. Nikita Kucherov has been dynamite for the entire season — so much so that one could make a case he deserves some MVP consideration if the Lightning make the playoffs — but he alone can’t propel this team into the post-season. Adding Stamkos would bring an offensive element that takes some of the defensive attention off of Kucherov, and Stamkos’ return would bring even more firepower to a power play that is already one of the league’s most lethal.

It’s hard enough for most teams to effectively replace a second-line center, so imagine attempting to find any suitable in-season replacement after an injury takes a pivot who has scored 88 goals and 156 points in his past 176 games out of the lineup. Finding a player of that ilk is impossible.

Of course, how effective Stamkos would have actually been upon his return is up for debate, especially having not seen game action for more than four months at this point. It stands to reason that a player with natural scoring ability like Stamkos could at the very least provide a few tallies down the stretch had he returned, though. Unfortunately for the Lightning, it doesn’t appear that’s going to be the case.

There’s more to it than Stamkos scoring, however. His ability to play down the middle would have made his return equally important. Consider how thin the Lightning are with the injuries to Johnson and Paquette. Point suddenly playing upwards of 20 minutes on the top line was never the plan. Even if Stamkos were to return and play second- or third-line minutes, he takes considerable pressure off of the Lightning’s top two units, and he bolsters the bottom six while the likes of Byron Froese and Greg McKegg go back to taking fewer minutes or watching from the sideline.

With a roster as deep as Tampa Bay’s, the Lightning’s playoff hopes were never going to hinge on Stamoks alone, and it’s not as if we can write Tampa Bay off quite yet. That said, Stamkos’ return could have been just what the doctor ordered as the Lightning chase a fourth-straight post-season appearance. Instead, they have to hope recent injuries and Stamkos’ inability to return aren’t the final nails in their playoff coffin.

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