Imagine how good the Lightning will be after Steven Stamkos, Anton Stralman return

ByJoe McDonald ESPN logo
Friday, May 13, 2016

TAMPA, Fla. -- Imagine, for a moment, the 2015 Stanley Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks.

Now picture that roster without captain Jonathan Toews and veteran defenseman Duncan Keith.

Would a championship banner hang from the rafters at the United Center without those two in the lineup?

Fortunately for the Blackhawks and their fans, this is only hypothetical. We know the 2014-15 season ended with a third Stanley Cup title in six seasons for Chicago.

Fast-forward to the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs, and switch conferences. The Tampa Bay Lightning are on the verge of returning to the Eastern Conference finals for the second consecutive season. They have a 3-1 lead in their second-round series against the New York Islanders, with Game 5 at 3 p.m. ET Sunday at Amalie Arena.

The Lightning are playing like the experienced team that reached the Stanley Cup finals last spring. And they are doing it without captain Steven Stamkos and veteran defenseman Anton Stralman.

Stralman has been arguably the Lightning's best overall player this season. He suffered a fractured left leg March 25, but he is close to returning. Coach Jon Cooper said Saturday that Stralman would not be available for Game 5.

Stamkos, who had surgery April 4 to remove a blood clot near his collarbone, has been skating and has participated in a few practices with the team. He's unlikely to return this series, but it's looking like a strong possibility that he will be back if the Lightning advance to the conference finals. Stamkos, who becomes an unrestricted free agent July 1, is the face of the organization, and he will earn a massive payday from either his current team or another this summer.

First, the Lightning need him if they are to win hockey's ultimate goal.

Because the Lightning have a 3-1 lead in this series, there's no need to rush Stamkos and Stralman back. Tampa is also without forward J.T. Brown, who has been sidelined with an upper-body injury.

"In the perfect world, we would have all those guys back," Cooper said.

With a depleted blue line, defenseman Victor Hedman has stepped up and played significant minutes with different partners in the playoffs. The younger players on the team, the "Triplets Line" of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson and Nikita Kucherov, have led the offense. Forward Valtteri Filppula logs an average of 23 minutes per game and plays in most situations. Goaltender Ben Bishop has been outstanding. These players are expected to perform in such a manner.

"We're getting contributions from everybody," Cooper said.

Case in point: It was third-line center Brian Boyle who scored the overtime goal in Game 3. In Game 4, defenseman Jason Garrison scored the winner on a blast from the right point.

"When you're getting contributions from everybody, it helps when you have your big guns out," Cooper said.

The Lightning's resiliency has been impressive, but imagine what this team can accomplish after those injured players return to the lineup. After the team's overtime win in Game 4, Lightning forward Alex Killorn entertained that notion.

"It's real exciting just to know that there's a potential for them to come back," Killorn said. "When you see what we're doing without them, and you realize they're around the corner and could be back with us next series or at the end of this series, it's always really exciting."

Cooper has been spoiled to have such talented players on his bench. Time and again during the postseason, the coach has mentioned the team's calmness during games, no matter the situation. The Islanders have been throwing everything at them, and the Lightning have responded with three straight wins. Even though Tampa has the experience from a season ago, there's one thing this team hasn't accomplished.

"They haven't raised the Stanley Cup, so that's the one thing they haven't seen," Cooper said. "Pretty much everything until then, they have. I think that's what puts us in the position we're in. When you've gone through this, there's no real panic button anymore. You don't know if it's the first period or the third period with this team. To the last buzzer, they keep playing away. It's a lot of fun to be around."

When Garrison's blast from the right point beat Islanders goaltender Thomas Greiss in overtime of Game 4, he was mobbed by his teammates on the ice. Once again, someone else contributed to the team's postseason success. Still, the idea that Stamkos and Stralman are close to returning has the Lightning salivating.

"Yeah, it's tough, for sure, when you're missing big assets out of the lineups right now," Garrison said. "But a lot of credit goes to the guys that are stepping in and playing minutes for us. We just got to keep doing that and hopefully get some guys healthy, but in the meantime, a lot of guys in this room know how to play. It's been nice watching guys step up."

Facing elimination, the Islanders will no doubt bring their A-game on Sunday. Tampa expects a physical, fast-paced battle.

"We can't take for granted that we're going home," Cooper said after Friday's game in Brooklyn.

If the Lightning can eliminate the Islanders on Sunday, once again, Tampa will do it without Stamkos and Stralman.