PITTSBURGH – Steven Stamkos has three scars from his surgery two months ago to correct an issue with a blood clot. Two on his neck, and one on his shoulder. Reminders of what coach Jon Cooper referred to as a “catastrophic” injury to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s captain. Reminders of what Stamkos had to work back from to play in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final on Thursday night.
The storybook was there to be written: Superstar returns from injury to inspire his team to victory in a championship game. A superstar in what might be his last season with the only franchise he's known as a professional.
The Pittsburgh Penguins spoiled the ending.
“They had that step. We couldn’t match it. When you’re getting outshot that badly … that’s tough. They had an extra gear tonight,” said Stamkos after the 2-1 loss to the Penguins on Thursday night, eliminating the Lightning and ending Stamkos’s final season before unrestricted free agency.
“For me to sit here and answer questions like this [about the game] is unfair to the guys, because they’re the ones that battled and played through injuries. Worked their tail off to get to a Game 7.”
Stamkos skated 11:55 and had five shot attempts. His shifts gradually got longer as he found his legs. He had one golden opportunity on a partial breakaway against Penguins goalie Matt Murray in the second period that was saved.
“I felt I beat him. It went through and out the other side. It was close,” said Stamkos.
As was the game, but the Penguins had the better of the play. Whatever spark Stamkos provided, it didn’t translate into offense for the Lightning. (Odd, isn't it, that both teams had star players return to their lineups during the series and the result was a loss?)
Also hurting Stamkos: The Penguins smartly stayed out of the penalty box, giving the Lightning only 31 seconds of power play time.
“He’s a world class player that they added to their team. We were fortunate to stay out of the box, with the shot he has,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby.
Stamkos said he knew after Game 6 that there was a chance he could play in the elimination game. He told reporters there was no change in his status. Cooper was coy with the media 90 minutes before Game 7 started, saying he wouldn't discuss his lineup. There was then plenty to discuss when Stamkos came out for warmups.
His surgeon, Dr. Karl Illing, told the Tampa Bay Times that Stamkos had been medically cleared to play a while back but couldn’t because he was on blood thinners. Stamkos received “several opinions from hematologists” before returning to the Lightning in Game 7.
For Stamkos, it wasn’t just a chance to potentially play for the Stanley Cup for a second straight season with a victory – it was a chance to rejoin teammates that played extremely well in his absence, who may not be his teammates after this summer.
“Extremely proud. It was special for me to get back on the ice with these guys. With this group. Such a tight group … such a team that has gone through a lot this year,” said Stamkos, his eyes tearing slightly.
“Different types of adversity. And we’ve come through with flying colors, but it just didn’t happen tonight. These are usually the kind of moments when things go well because of the things that you endure as a group. But for whatever reason, we’re going to have to learn from this and come back stronger.”
‘We’re going to come back stronger.’ Every word Stamkos says is going to be scrutinized until his name is on a new contract. But after Game 7, one couldn’t help but feel the bond between captain and teammates, and with teammates and captain.
“I’m confident that he’s back,” said forward Brian Boyle on Stamkos.
“Everything’s changing every year with the group. It’s hard to keep everybody together. Hopefully we can keep the group together. I’m very fortunate. Very blessed to be a part of this. That’s what makes this harder. You never know what happens in the offseason.”
Boyle stared down at the dressing bench, several stalls over from where Stamkos had been sitting. “I’m trying to wrap my head around our season being over now. That’s enough bad news for me.”
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