Tampa Bay will be without Steven Stamkos, its captain and top center, for the remainder of the Stanley Cup finals, Lightning Coach Jon Cooper said Sunday.
“Hopefully the next time we see him on the ice is for a trophy presentation,” said Cooper, whose team leads the Dallas Stars three games to two in the best-of-seven series.
Stamkos, who has twice led the N.H.L. in goals and was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2008 draft, has played a total of two minutes and 47 seconds in these playoffs. That came across the five shifts he played in the first period of Game 3, in which he scored a goal on his only shot. It gave the Lightning a 2-0 lead in a game they won 5-2.
“To be honest, I didn’t think he was playing at all in these playoffs,” Cooper said. “I don’t think any of us did. So, he gave us 2:47 of brilliant hockey; that’s a phenomenal story.”
If Stamkos had something of a Willis Reed moment — when Reed hobbled down the tunnel for Game 7 of the 1970 N.B.A. finals to score the Knicks’ first two field goals with a torn thigh muscle — then Nikita Kucherov has played the role of Walt Frazier, the star of that game. Kucherov and his linemate Brayden Point, a center, each have seven points in the series. Kucherov’s 26 assists this postseason are five shy of Wayne Gretzky’s playoff record. Only Gretzky and Mario Lemieux have accumulated more helpers in a single postseason. Kucherov, Point and the Lightning’s top defenseman, Victor Hedman, are among the favorites for the postseason’s most valuable player award, the Conn Smythe Trophy.
Before Game 3, Stamkos had last played on Feb. 25, and he had surgery because of a core muscle injury on March 2. Because Stamkos was initially expected to be out for six to eight weeks, the suspension of play between March 12 and late July because of the coronavirus pandemic would have appeared to have opened the door for a return to the ice.
But in July Stamkos was sidelined anew. His condition has been shrouded in familiar, vague terms like “lower-body injury,” general ones like “an issue,” and also with the new distinctions for 2020, “unfit to play” and “unable to compete.”
“There’s been a lot of behind-the-scenes things that I’ll be glad to share with you guys after the season,” Stamkos said in a news conference after Game 3. “We’re focused on winning right now.”
Stamkos is the Lightning’s longest tenured player, and one of just two players remaining from their 2011 conference finals team. The other is Hedman.
The selection of Stamkos in 2008 and Hedman second over all in 2009 catapulted the Lightning back to the top of the league. They had won the Stanley Cup in 2004, but then followed up with a pair of first-round exits and three nonplayoff seasons, including a pair of last-place finishes in their division.
The Lightning have been to five conference finals and two Stanley Cup finals in the past 10 seasons. They also tied a record with 62 regular-season wins last season, but the bottom-seeded Columbus Blue Jackets stunned them with a sweep in the first round.
If the Lightning can win either Game 6 on Monday night in Edmonton, Alberta, or a potential Game 7 on Wednesday, they would become the first team in the expansion era to win the Stanley Cup after being swept out of the first round the previous season. They will have to accomplish that feat without Stamkos, who has been a pillar of their franchise for more than a decade.