Moments before the puck dropped on Saturday's game between the Lightning and Flames, it was announced that Steven Stamkos would undergo surgery on Monday to repair a core muscle injury.
On the ice, the Bolts snapped a four-game losing streak with a 4-3 win over Calgary but now face the challenge of playing the remainder of the regular season without their captain.
The injury appears to have been something Stamkos was dealing with for several weeks.
When Stamkos missed three games earlier this month, Jon Cooper said that he was dealing with a nagging injury. Stamkos returned to the lineup on February 15 but reaggravated the injury in Monday's game forcing him to sit out Thursday and Friday.
Then, just prior to Saturday's game, the team announced that Stamkos would have surgery on Monday in St. Louis. With recovery and rehab expected to take between six and eight weeks, Stamkos appears to be done for the remainder of the regular season. That timetable has the Lightning Captain returning sometime in April, likely not until after the First Round of the playoffs has finished.
"In the end, this is what was best for him," Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. "It's just tough the timing for him because so close to the end of the season but if it wasn't required, if it wasn't the best thing for him, we wouldn't be doing it."
Finding a way to replace Stamkos' offense will be critical for the Lightning down the stretch. At the time of the injury, Stamkos ranked second on the team in both goals and points. Tampa Bay's struggling power play unit will also need to adjust with Stamkos' team-leading 10 PPGs out of the lineup.
"Steven has been such a great player for us throughout this season," Yanni Gourde said. "The way he plays, his leadership, the way he plays the game, we're going to miss him for sure. On the power play but also 5-on-5, he's winning so many draws, he's been such a leader for us. It's going to be tough to replace, but we're going to have to battle through it. Everybody's going to have to step their game up and obviously we're going to be ready for the challenge."
The slumping power play showed signs of bouncing back on Saturday, with the Bolts building a 2-0 lead on a pair of goals with the man advantage. Tyler Johnson opened the scoring, deflecting home a point shot from Mikhail Sergachev 14 minutes into the first period. Ondrej Palat then doubled the lead when his shot bounced off a defenseman's stick and past David Rittich.
After Yanni Gourde scored a shorthanded goal to push Tampa Bay's lead to three, Calgary responded with goals 52 seconds apart to get right back into the game. Andrew Mangiapane made it 3-1 when his shot trickled through Andrei Vasilevksiy's equipment and over the goal line. Less than a minute later, Elias Lindholm pulled the Flames within one after his shot deflected off Palat and past Vasilevskiy.
Alex Killorn's 24th goal of the year 53 seconds later quickly reestablished the Lightning's two-goal lead. Blake Coleman chipped the puck in the slot for Killorn who lifted the puck over Rittich's pads on a backhand to put Tampa Bay up 4-2.
That goal turned out to be the game-winner after Calgary scored late in the third to make it 4-3. Sean Monahan capitalized on a loose puck in the crease to get Calgary back within one with less than three minutes to play in regulation but the Bolts shut the door from there.
Aside from the two goals allowed in the second and a few strong shifts from Calgary in the third period, the Lightning dictated play for most of the game on Saturday. The Bolts outshot the Flames 33-21 and were two-for-four with the man advantage.
"As coaches, we put the guys in position to succeed and tonight was a good step in that regard," Cooper said. "We've just got to keep plugging away here until he gets back."
TBL | 13:52 Tyler Johnson (14) - Mikhail Sergachev, Nikita Kucherov - PPG
TBL | 7:05 Ondrej Palat (16) - Nikita Kucherov, Mikhail Sergachev - PPG
TBL | 11:50 Yanni Gourde (10) - Cedric Paquette, Zach Bogosian - SHG
CGY | 13:12 Andrew Mangiapane (17) - Mikael Backlund
CGY | 14:04 Elias Lindholm (28) - Erik Gustafsson, Johnny Gaudreau
TBL | 14:57 Alex Killorn (24) - Blake Coleman, Braydon Coburn
CGY | 17:11 Sean Monahan (22) - Elias Lindholm, Matthew Tkachuk - PPG