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What if Stamkos, Stralman return for playoffs?

Tampa Bay could be stacked if forward, defenseman come back from injury

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

NEW YORK - The day after Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Second Round, Steven Stamkos skated with the Tampa Bay Lightning in a red non-contact sweater. He pushed himself until he was flushed and winded, trying to get in shape in case, maybe, just maybe, he could return from a blood clot that has kept him out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

After catching his breath, he talked about watching the Lightning lose to the New York Islanders 5-3. He said he caught himself wondering: What if he had been out there? What if defenseman Anton Stralman had been out there? What if forward J.T. Brown had been out there?

"That's just the game of what-ifs in your head," he said.

It's a fascinating game to play now that the Lightning have earned back-to-back wins and taken a 2-1 lead in the best-of-7 series, with Game 4 on Friday at Barclays Center (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

The Lightning are two wins from making the Eastern Conference Final for the second straight season, even though they are without Stamkos, their captain and leading goal-scorer in the regular season; Stralman, a top-pair defenseman who helps partner Victor Hedman make the most of his unique skills; and Brown, the kind of role player who is so valuable this time of year.

Video: TBL@PIT: Stralman snipes goal from point

They have played the past two games without forward Erik Condra and defenseman Matt Carle, too.

It's a testament to the depth general manager Steve Yzerman has built, and a testament to the skill, character and experience of the players who have remained in the lineup.

The Lightning still have forward Nikita Kucherov, whose seven playoff goals led the NHL entering play Wednesday. They still have center Tyler Johnson, whose 11 points tied for second. They still have Hedman, a gazelle on the blue line; goaltender Ben Bishop, a Vezina Trophy finalist; forwards Brian Boyle and Ryan Callahan, heart-and-soul guys and top penalty-killers; and too many others to mention.

And now they have Jonathan Drouin, the third pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, who is playing like an elite talent in the NHL for the first time. He missed most of the season amid all kinds of drama - clashing with coach Jon Cooper, demanding a trade, sitting out in the minors, getting suspended, not getting traded, asking to play in the minors, rejoining the Lightning for the final two regular-season games - and now, at age 21, he has eight points in eight playoff games.

What if the Lightning had their injured players? How much better would be they be?

Video: NYI@TBL, Gm2: Drouin slips one five-hole by Greiss

Well, remember: They wouldn't have Drouin. At least they probably wouldn't have Drouin playing like this. The silver lining of Stamkos' injury is it led to Drouin's recall from the minors and Cooper giving him the minutes he always wanted. Cooper has lived with mistakes maybe he otherwise wouldn't have, especially in the playoffs; Drouin has seized the opportunity and made a huge impact.

Drouin seemed like a petulant kid. Now Bishop is calling him a "warrior" for the way he came back from a nasty hit and set up the tying goal with 38.4 seconds left in regulation in Game 3 against the Islanders, and Cooper is saying he has been a "pleasure" to coach, he's "proud" of him and "the story is not over."

A pleasure to coach? Proud of him? What a difference.

There is little point in wondering what would have happened had Cooper and Drouin been on the same page in the first place. They can't change the past, and Drouin might have had to go through that to get to this point. He has said the time away made him reexamine himself and his game.

But you have to wonder now: What if they repair their relationship and Drouin drops his trade request? That would be especially important if Stamkos leaves as an unrestricted free agent in the offseason.

That would be even better if Stamkos stays and Yzerman can keep as much of this team as possible together under the salary cap. The Lightning, who came within two wins of a championship a year ago, would be an even more imposing Stanley Cup contender. Realistically, where else would Stamkos have a better chance to win?

We're not going to go too far with that right now. But Dave Andreychuk, the former Lightning captain who is now the team's vice president of community and corporate affairs, sounded optimistic about re-signing Stamkos in an interview with Sportsnet on Wednesday.

"I believe it will happen," Andreychuk said. "Even with all this going on, I think it'll happen."

Video: NYI@TBL: Stamkos jams home rebound for 35th goal

In the meantime, what if the Lightning stay alive long enough in these playoffs to get at least some of their injured players back, especially Stamkos or Stralman?

Stamkos remains out indefinitely, saying it could be weeks or months before he's cleared to return. But he's traveling with the team and continuing to skate, and the original timeline was one to three months. The one-month anniversary of his blood clot surgery was Wednesday.

Cooper called Stralman doubtful for Game 4. But the more the defenseman skates, the closer he gets to returning from a fractured fibula. Before the series began, the Lightning were hopeful Stralman would be ready by the end of it.

What if the Lightning are able to eliminate the Islanders, with or without Stamkos or Stralman, and give one or both a chance to play in the conference final or the final?

As Cooper said of Drouin, the story is not over.

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