Lightning hoping Steven Stamkos' return can spark trip to postseason

Published October 06, 2017

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -- Steven Stamkos is back, hoping to again lead the Tampa Bay Lightning deep in the playoffs.

The two-time Maurice Richard Trophy winner as the NHL's top goal scorer missed most of last season with a knee injury, contributing to the team missing the playoffs after extended postseason runs the previous two years.

The captain's return is just one of the reasons the Lightning have a chance to rebound quickly.

Young goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy is another. Same for Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, Ryan Callahan and Tyler Johnson.

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"After two long playoff runs I think the blessing part of (missing the playoffs) is you get rest, you get recovery. But at the same time, guys are hungry," said Callahan, who like Stamkos, sat out most of last season because of injuries.

"We weren't happy with last year. We had high expectations … and missing the playoffs is pretty disappointing," Callahan added. "We have something to prove going into this year. Not taking anything for granted, we realize we have to perform on the ice."

With 94 points, the Lightning finished last in the Atlantic Division, missing the playoffs by one point.

Falling short was especially deflating considering Tampa Bay appeared in the Stanley Cup Final two years ago and came within one victory of a return trip in 2016.

"It's humbling for us all," general manager Steve Yzerman said.

Coach Jon Cooper noted it was a reminder, too, that the team's focus at this time of the year has be on doing whatever's necessary over the 82-game regular season to make the playoffs -- not the ultimate goal of winning the Stanley Cup.

"You just look at how razor thin (the margin)," can be for earning a postseason berth, Cooper said.

"We end up having the same amount of points as the Nashville Predators, and they ended up two games from the Stanley Cup while we watched them for two months," the coach added. "That's how this league is. … We can't vie for the Stanley Cup if we don't make the playoffs."

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WELCOME BACK CAP

Stamkos appeared in just 17 games last season, scoring a career-low nine goals. He's not making any bold predictions, however he reported to training camp for his 10th season confident he will be able to regain his form and continue to play at a high level.

"He might be more hungry than anybody," Johnson said. "He's had some tough luck with some different things. But Stammer is Stammer, and he's a guy that's going to come in and I expect him to start the way that he started last year and play that way. He's going to be a huge addition for our team."

PLENTY OF FIREPOWER

Stamkos' return bolsters a roster featuring plenty of offensive prowess. Kucherov is a rising star who led the Lightning in scoring last season with 40 goals and 45 assists. Johnson and Palat had 19 and 17 goals, respectively, while Hedman was the team's second leading scorer in Stamkos' absence with 16 goals and 56 assists.

NEW ADDITIONS

In addition to getting Stamkos and Callahan, limited to just 18 games last season, back on the ice, the Lightning expect to benefit for the offseason acquisition of veteran forward Chris Kunitz and defenseman Dan Girardi, as well as Mikhail Sergachez, a 19-year-old defenseman obtained in the trade that sent Jonathan Drouin to Montreal.

YOU'RE NO. 1

Vasilevskiy begins his first full season as the No. 1 goalie. In 50 games, including 47 starts last season, the 23-year-old went 23-17-7 with a .917 save percentage and 2.61 goals-against average.

"He hasn't played a ton in the league, but we're really confident in him," Yzerman said.

"Every young goaltender, it can be a challenge. But we're confident he's going to be an excellent goaltender for a long time," the GM added. "Will it be a completely smooth road? I hope so, but it may not be. But we believe that he's got the character and the mental toughness to ride it out."

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