The Lightning were not the only ones to lose Steven Stamkos for a long time on Monday. Team Canada probably will be without a top-six Olympic forward in February. The NHL will be down one of the good guys — a young, friendly, humble superstar who plays the game the right way.
“It’s obviously tough to see him go down, not only for our team. He’s one of the best players in the world,” said Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper. “People come and cheer the Boston Bruins here. But they also come to see guys like Steven Stamkos play hockey. It’s a loss for everybody.”
At 12:49 of the second period, Stamkos broke his right tibia after colliding with his own net. Given the violence with which Stamkos rammed into the post and his post-collision reaction, the severity of his injury was not a surprise.
Stamkos entered the game with 23 points, tops in the NHL alongside Sidney Crosby. As one of the league’s best finishers, Stamkos goes to the net with purpose. He hunts down pucks in a predatory manner and tucks them away with slam-dunk authority. Stamkos’s moneymaker is his one-timer from the left circle. It is one of the NHL’s trademark moves, up there with Pavel Datsyuk’s dangles and Patrick Kane’s stick-on-puck wizardry.
Not every superstar is as hungry around his own net. Forwards rack up points and big-term contracts by floating in the neutral zone and cherry-picking at the offensive blue line.
Not Stamkos. On the play, Stamkos was backchecking hard on Dougie Hamilton to break up a backdoor scoring chance.
“It’s a tough one for the game,” Cooper said. “You want to see guys who have it? Steven Stamkos has it. It’s tough to lose a guy like that. But we’ll see what we’re made of. You’re talking about a test? This is a test.”
Hamilton had a step on Stamkos. But Stamkos caught up to Hamilton, who isn’t exactly a slug when it comes to straight-line speed.
“He was too fast for me, so he caught me and I guess we both just went to the net,” Hamilton said. “I don’t know what happened. He fell and hit the post pretty hard. It’s unfortunate and kind of sad to see that happen.”
Stamkos lost his balance. He barreled into the cage. The net came off its moorings. But Stamkos’s right leg hooked against the post, bending his ankle back.
Goalie Anders Lindback immediately waved for help. Stamkos got up and tried to skate away. But he stumbled, fell, and slammed his right fist repeatedly into the ice.
Medical personnel called for a stretcher. Stamkos was lifted onto a backboard, strapped into the stretcher, and wheeled off the ice. Stamkos’s right leg was elevated as he left the rink.
After the game, Peter Asnis, the Bruins’ team doctor, led the Tampa braintrust through the hallway outside the dressing room. General manager Steve Yzerman, assistant GM Julien BriseBois, and senior adviser Tom Kurvers looked grim. They had a good idea that one of the league’s top five players would be out for a long time.
Stamkos leads the NHL with 14 goals. He also has nine assists. Stamkos is averaging 20:17 of ice time per game. The 23-year-old entered Monday with a six-game goal-scoring streak. Stamkos is the No. 1 center between Martin St. Louis and Alex Killorn.
Stamkos isn’t just an offense-first player. He averages 1:03 of shorthanded ice time per game. His only deficiency is at the dot, where he has a 45.4 percent winning percentage.
After Stamkos’s departure, Valtteri Filppula took over as the top-line pivot. Teddy Purcell manned Stamkos’s usual spot at the left circle on the power play. Brett Connolly moved up to the first man-up unit. None of these players can replicate Stamkos’s skill and competitive spirit.
“There’s no sugar-coating it,” Cooper said. “He’s a huge part of our team. You can make an argument here that if you were going to hand out the MVP of the league right now, you’d be hard-pressed not to give it to him. So is that a hole in our team? Yes it is. But one thing I can say is [Yzerman’s] done an unreal job of building this organization from the bottom up.”
The Lightning still lead the Atlantic Division. But the Bruins halted Tampa’s four-game winning streak. The Bruins are now only a point behind Tampa.
Stamkos’s loss also affects Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli and coach Claude Julien. Chiarelli is part of Team Canada’s management group. Julien is an assistant coach.
The Lightning must now adapt to life without Stamkos. It won’t be easy. Teams game-plan for Stamkos. Whenever Stamkos and St. Louis are on the ice, shutdown defensemen such as Zdeno Chara serve as their shadows.
Now opposing coaches might not have to hard-match their defensive aces against the Lightning.
Cooper was realistic about the impact of Stamkos’s loss. But the coach was defiant at the same time.
“If there’s anything I’ve learned over the first 16-17 games about this team, we’ve got gamers,” Cooper said. “There’s a reason we’ve won 12 games this year. These guys have gamed it out. Steven’s been a big part of that. No question. But to sit here and say we’re going to fold the tent because he might not be around for a while, these guys don’t have that within them in the locker room. It hurts. But we will move on.”