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EDMONTON — If the Tampa Bay Lightning are going to raise the Stanley Cup this week, they’ll have to do it without their captain, best pure scorer and motivational leader playing any further on-ice role.
Steven Stamkos has been ruled out for the rest of the playoffs with an undisclosed injury that has limited him to a brief but memorable appearance in Game 3, when he skated for five shifts over a 2:47 span and scored a beautiful goal in a victory by his club.
"Just to be blunt, he’s done for the series," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said during his off-day media availability Sunday. "Hopefully next time we see him on the ice is during a trophy presentation."
That could come as early as Monday night here in Edmonton, as Tampa Bay gets another shot to finish off Dallas. They came painfully close on Saturday, losing a 4-3 lead late in the third period and ultimately falling 5-4 in double overtime. They lead the best-of-seven series 3-2.
Game 7, if needed, would go Wednesday.
Stamkos, 30, didn’t see the ice for the last two periods of his one appearance, clearly re-aggravating whatever has been ailing him. But he left a lasting impression on his teammates.
"He did everything he could to get back, and he did get back. Unfortunately he couldn’t go any further. I’m sure this will all be addressed after the series is over. To be honest, I didn’t think he was playing at all in these playoffs, I don’t think any of us did," said Cooper.
"To have given us 2:47 of brilliant hockey, that’s a phenomenal story. Scored a huge goal for us in a win. Hopefully we can keep that momentum moving forward. He’s for sure missed on the ice."
The Lightning continue to get huge contributions from the top line of Nikita Kucherov, Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat, pillars on the blue-line in veteran Victor Hedman and youngster Mikhail Sergachev, top-flight goaltending from Andrei Vasilevskiy and plenty of depth contributions. In that sense, there doesn’t seem to be any panic despite coming up just short in their first chance to close the series out.
"I don’t think if you miss an opportunity in overtime of an elimination game you sit here and say we’re failing in that department. Guys are battling their asses off. I really like how we’ve responded after losses. It’s not going to guarantee future success, but there’s a focus with this group. The collective leadership with Stammer not in the lineup has been exceptional. So many guys have really grown into that role," said Cooper.
"But Dallas is definitely a formidable opponent. They’re not going to go away quietly."
The Lightning have not lost two straight at any point in this return-to-play, following up five previous losses with victories and outscoring opponents 16-9 in those games.
"I can only speak for our team but we’ve done a pretty good job of turning the page. You can’t re-write history. Just stay to our plan. It’s gotten us this far," said Cooper. "It’s just when you are that close, you can sit here and say you can taste it. But in the end we’re still up 3-2 in the series. And we feel pretty decent about our game. So let’s bring it (Monday) night and see what happens."
Perhaps this series will follow a similar path as the Eastern Conference Final, where Tampa Bay built a 3-1 series lead, lost Game 5 in double overtime but then finished off the New York Islanders in Game 6.
"At the end of the day that’s what playoffs are all about. You’re not going to win every elimination game. We just gotta go out there and play our best. We’ve been in those situations before. We’re going to go out there (Monday) and work hard and try to get the win," said forward Yanni Gourde.
One thing Tampa Bay should be a bit concerned about is the emergence of Dallas’ best players. Joe Pavelski and Corey Perry both have three goals in their last two games, including the tying and winning tallies Saturday. Tyler Seguin has five assists in that span.
"I think we just need to stick to our system. When we’re forechecking, getting pucks 200 feet, when we aren’t turning pucks over, we’re a tough team to play against no matter which line is on the ice for them," said Barclay Goodrow, part of an effective checking trio with Gourde and Blake Coleman which sees a steady diet of the top line.
"When you make it to the Cup final and the other team’s backs are against the wall, you’re obviously going to get their best. You’re going to get their hardest push. I think from series one, two, three to four, that push from the other team gets harder and harder. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. I think we have another gear we can get to (Monday). Hopefully we can get the job done."
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