NHL

Steven Stamkos May Be Coming Back with Just Enough Time to Save the Lightning's Season

Tampa Bay is in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race and could soon get its best player back.

Kyle Cantlon

Photo by Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

As the Tampa Bay Lightning make a late-season surge for one of the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, a key reinforcement, in the form of their best player, may be on the way.

Steven Stamkos has been sidelined since mid-November, but had his status switched to day-to-day on Wednesday, while head coach Jon Cooper said he was "pretty close" to a return, according to Joe Smith of the Tampa Bay Times.

Stamkos, who hasn't suited up since suffering a knee injury in a game against Detroit on Nov. 15, reportedly skated and took line rushes with Adam Erne and Yanni Gourde and took reps on the second powerplay unit during practice Wednesday morning. According to the 27-year-old Lightning captain, this is the best he's felt and the closest he's been to returning since he went down more than four months ago.

"I'm not going to put any dates on it, but I'm just very pleased and excited with how it's feeling. Sitting here three weeks ago, maybe not thinking it'd feel this good. I'm very optimistic about being able to get where I need to be to hopefully sooner rather than later," said Stamkos after practice Wednesday.

Stamkos has been ruled out of Thursday's matchup against the Red Wings, but his status for Saturday's contest against Montreal is still unclear and speculation persists that he could suit up then. The former 60-goal scorer and perennial All-Star is on his way back at the perfect time for the Lightning, as the club hopes its best offensive player can swoop in and give the team that little bit extra it needs to get back to the postseason—a task that seemed unthinkable just a few weeks ago. It was starting to look like a lost season for a team that many considered pre-season Stanley Cup favourites. After a horrific start, the Lightning sold at the deadline and shipped All-Star goaltender Ben Bishop to the Kings, while flipping Valtteri Filppula to the Flyers, and their captain looked like he was done for the season, too.

But through all that, the club has hung around. Tampa Bay has seven games left and sits three points back of the Bruins for the second wild-card spot with one game in hand, and has stayed afloat in a tight Eastern Conference thanks to a couple of its superstars making contributions in the absence of Stamkos. Nikita Kucherov sits sixth in NHL scoring, as his 80 points this season has garnered lots of recent Hart Trophy consideration, while defenceman Victor Hedman is making a late Norris Trophy push, sitting just behind Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns for most points among blueliners.

With two huge games remaining against Boston and Toronto, the Lightning certainly still have a fighting chance to battle their way into the playoffs over the next 10 days or so. And, alas, their captain may be here to save the day.