Five Things To Watch For As The Lightning Return to Action
1. The Return of Steven Stamkos
Being closely monitored by the Lightning training staff and doctors over the course of his rehab for a broken right tibia, Stamkos may not be re-joining the team as they re-open the campaign on the road. One thing is certain, though as Stamkos is on track to return to the lineup sooner than later. After his attempt at an Olympic comeback fell short early in February another let down followed prior to Tampa Bay re-opening the season, as he learned he still was not cleared to play. However Stamkos has now had nearly an extra month of time to make his right leg stronger and appears to have no pain during cutting, stopping and turning situations as well as battle drills. Stamkos' timing does not appear rusty, his sniper shot remains dead on and his confidence is at a much higher level than one month ago.
Whenever Stamkos does play for the first time he may seem hesitant in the dirty areas of the ice, but a few shifts is what it will take for him to be completely confident on his surgically repaired leg. Once his confidence returns, Stamkos will be the X-factor in the Bolts' playoff push.
2. Home Ice Advantage
Prior to the break, 12 of Tampa Bay's last 19 games were away from the Tampa Bay Times Forum and during that stretch the Bolts went 10-8-1. While the Bolts remained relatively sufficient on the road, they are similar to most teams who are inevitably better at home. The Lightning have scored 87 home goals and have allowed 65 goals against at home, compared to 75 road goals and 77 goals against away from Tampa Bay.
Now the ball is in the Lightning's court with 14 of their last 24 games coming within the friendly confines of the Times Forum. The Bolts also have a six-game homestand in March that features three division rivals (Buffalo Sabres, Boston Bruins, Florida Panthers) and another to end the season. The odds are in the Lightning's favor after an early test on the road at the end of February and beginning of March. Last time the Bolts had a lengthy homestand (a season-high, seven-game homestand in October), Tampa Bay posted a 5-2-0 record.
3. Line Shuffling
When Stamkos is ready to return, head coach Jon Cooper and the Lightning will have some questions to answer on where he'll fit within the Bolts' line combinations. After losing Stamkos in mid-November it took a while for Tampa Bay to get their lines just right and to produce at a level that would keep them amidst the postseason conversation. Stamkos centered captain Martin St. Louis on the top line before his injury, but was eventually replaced by Tyler Johnson when he was hurt. Ondrej Palat was the top combination's left wing. The trio along with the second through fourth lines found some dynamic chemistry, with each of the lines anchoring the offense on different occasions. Stamkos' injury may have helped Cooper learn more about the rest of his roster's chemistry with one another. They also developed depth, especially at center, now that Johnson has the possibility of being moved down to the third line with Valtteri Filppula firmly entrenched as the Lighting's second line center. Though it may take a few tries to get Stamkos and the rest of the team comfortable with whatever combinations Cooper has in mind, it is not a bad problem for Tampa Bay to have because of what they have already been able to achieve with their superstar center out of the lineup.
4. Finally Healthy
Barring any other major injuries to the lineup, the Bolts may be close to 100-percent healthy for the first time by mid-March. The Lightning saw those on injured reserve disappear after the injury bug took a big bite out of the team in December, yet it crept up again right before the Olympic Break. The possibility of having Stamkos back in the lineup before the Winter Games was quickly erased and Valtteri Filppula also fractured his right ankle and had to miss the Olympics. The situation between the pipes hasn't been much better either, as Anders Lindback came in for a hurt Ben Bishop January 30 in Ottawa, and despite remaining in the game, suffered a lower body injury during the contest that has kept him out of the lineup ever since. While Bishop returned before the Olympic break, he and a handful of other Bolts were still feeling pretty banged up leading up to the 10-day pause in action. Now that the entire team has had a chance to catch their breath things on the injury front may look better by March. Not only will Stamkos return to the lineup shortly, but those who were recovering from bumps and bruises, including Matt Carle and Tyler Johnson, are not expected to miss anytime. Filppula was given a three week prognosis for his ankle to heel and if he is out of the lineup as NHL games begin it is not expected to be long term. Lindback is waiting on results from X-rays, but has skated since re-joining the team for practice. A healthy team would take the extra pressure off of players who were heavily depended on while a number of players suffered ailments
5. Rookie Scoring Race
If the January 25th game versus the Colordao Avalanche was any indication of what is to come between two of the NHL's top rookie scorers vying for the Calder Trophy (awarded to the player selected as the most proficient in his first year of competition in the NHL) then it will sure be an exciting race to the finish. Entering the matchup versus the Avs just two points behind Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon for points, Johnson's first career hat trick coupled with MacKinnon's helper left the two tied for the league lead among rookies in points. The two will have a rematch as part of the Lightning's first road trip back and MacKinnon has again found himself with the lead for points with 44 (22 goals, 22 assists), while Johnson sits in the second position with 37 points (17 goals, 20 assists). Interestingly enough the Bolts Ondrej Palat is third among rookies for points with 34. The only concern for Johnson is that he may slowly lose pace with MacKinnon if he replaced by Stamkos when he does in fact return. Johnson has not only benefitted in his point totals from Martin St. Louis though, but has been impacted through his experiences as a top-line center, which may help him no matter who he is playing with in the near future.