After Tampa Bay's 3-2 overtime victory Thursday versus Florida, the team announced captain Steven Stamkos was out with a lower-body injury, was placed on long term injury reserve and would miss at least 10 games/24 days retroactive to his last game, which came April 8 in Columbus when he suffered a non-contact injury in the third period.
The blow is significant for the Lightning. Stamkos led the team for goals at the time of the injury and still ranks tied for first with Brayden Point and tied for 15th in the NHL. He's one of just four players in the League with 10 or more power-play goals.
With Nikita Kucherov out - more on him later - the Lightning are without arguably their top two scorers down the stretch run of the regular season with 13 games remaining and a battle for the top spot in the Central Division between themselves, Florida and Carolina still ongoing.
"It's a huge loss for our team," Lightning forward Pat Maroon said. "I feel bad for Stammer. I just feel like he can't catch a bounce right now. Hopefully, he's back in the lineup sooner than later. He's very positive right now, but it's a huge loss for us. He's our captain. He's our leader. He's our goal scorer, and he does the little things people don't notice. I just feel really bad for him right now. Hopefully, we've just got to keep being there for him and his teammates got to support him because he's going down a tough road here."
On a positive note, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said "by no means" is Stamkos' season over and when he's eligible to come back, the team expects him back.
Video: Jon Cooper | 4.16.21
"This is just something that he has to go through here for a little bit, and, for us, if we make the playoffs, to put him in a position to be in tip top shape come the playoffs," Cooper said. "It's unfortunate that it's happened, but I always say in these situations maybe it's a little short-term pain for long-term gain. He's given us a ton here in the first 40-plus games, and hopefully he can give us a bunch here in the postseason if we can get in."
Asked if Stamkos' latest injury is related to the core muscle injury he sustained toward the end of the 2019-20 regular season that required two surgeries and forced him from all but 2:47 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Cooper said they should know more about the nature of the injury in the next 24 hours.
Meanwhile, Kucherov practiced with the Lightning Friday at the TGH Ice Plex and was in a gray jersey. He's still not a full participant, but he took line rushes with Daniel Walcott and Gemel Smith and was on the ice for the duration, even continuing to train while most of the non-taxi squad roster had gone inside the locker room to work on his shooting and stickhandling.
Cooper said fans shouldn't read too much into the color of Kucherov's practice jersey. He still has a considerable road ahead to return from the hip surgery performed December 29 that's forced him to miss the entire regular season.
Kucherov hasn't been cleared for contact and is not anywhere near getting into contact drills.
"I don't think any player likes wearing the red (no-contact) jersey," Cooper said. "That's pretty much what happens there. Trust me, everybody knows what color jersey Kuch is wearing. It's kind of the no-touch zone for him."
The targeted return for Kucherov has always been the start of the postseason should the Lightning qualify. Tampa Bay general manager Julien BriseBois said during his mid-season media session Kucherov is right on track to be back in time to join his teammates for a playoff run.
Video: McDonagh | 4.16.21
Asked if Kucherov might be able to return ahead of schedule, Cooper said he doesn't anticipate that happening.
"Rest is still what's best for him," Cooper said. "Is he making strides? Yes, there's no question he's making strides. You're getting to that point now where it's a little bit of a tease because you're feeling pretty good, you're feeling good about yourself but when you go and see the people that make those decisions about your health, they say 'no, not yet.' But he's progressing. Do I think he's going to be ahead of schedule? I do, but for the regular season, it's only 13 games away and we play four games a (week), so it would only be a couple days."
Still, even though Kucherov is still weeks away from potentially being able to contribute in a game, having him on the ice practicing is a boost for the team, particularly with Stamkos now sidelined.
"No doubt, we're anxious," Ryan McDonagh said. "He's obviously a humongous part of our team and just a great attitude for our group more importantly too. Ultimately, we don't want to rush anything, and he'll take his time. But it is exciting for us defensemen and our forwards. You see him out there, he's helping guys, talking to guys. We've got a lot of young forwards, which it's great for those guys to see him out there too making different plays. His skill's rubbing off on the rest of our group. It's a great sign for us."