TAMPA (AP) — Steven Stamkos was playing some of his best hockey for the first-place Tampa Bay Lightning when a broken leg in mid-November sidelined him for the next 45 games and the Olympics.
Surprising contributions helped Tampa reach the playoffs despite Stamkos’ extended absence, but now the former 60-goal scorer is healthy and prepared to guide it to a deeper run.
The Lightning begin that quest Thursday night as they host the Florida Panthers, who hope their offseason additions and burgeoning young talent can help them return to the postseason.
Tampa Bay was off to a 12-4-0 start last season before Stamkos was hurt in a loss to Boston on Nov. 11. He registered 14 goals and nine assists before the injury, then had 11 goals and six assists after returning for the final 20 games of the regular season.
Rookies Tyler Johnson (24 goals) and Ondrej Palat (23) helped pick up the scoring slack, and the Lightning survived an unusual situation that led to the trade of former captain Martin St. Louis to finish 46-27-9 before being swept by Montreal in the playoffs.
They’re expecting to be even better with Stamkos healthy.
“He’s back,” coach Jon Cooper said. “He’s doing all those things he did pre-injury that he was not doing in the spring. It’s clear.”
Stamkos realizes it may take some time to get back to the level to which he’s accustomed, though.
“There’s still those days when it’s sore,” he told the team’s official website. “Just knowing the progress I’ve had it is definitely exciting for me.”
Ryan Callahan came over from the New York Rangers in the St. Louis deal, then signed a six-year, $34.8 million contract in the offseason. With Callahan preparing for his first full season in Tampa and a healthy Ben Bishop, who set franchise records for wins (37), save percentage (.924) and goals-against average (2.23), Stamkos is being cautiously optimistic.
Rookie Jonathan Drouin, the second overall pick in the 2013 draft, also should add another offensive weapon when he’s recovered from a fractured thumb.
“We have to realize it’s going to be tougher this year,” Stamkos agreed. “I know the expectations are higher, but we’re not going to surprise anyone. In that regard, we can use that as motivation.”
The Panthers are trying to surprise most everyone by returning to the playoffs after finishing 29-45-8 a year ago. They added some veterans through free agency to complement youngsters Nick Bjustad and 2013 Calder Trophy winner Jonathan Huberdeau.
Dave Bolland left Toronto for a long-term deal, and 37-year-old defenseman Willie Mitchell agreed to a two-year contract and will be the Panthers’ captain after winning the Stanley Cup with Los Angeles.
Jussi Jokinen and Shawn Thornton also were brought in, and goaltender Roberto Luongo returns after being acquired from Vancouver in March.
“The skill on our team is there,” Luongo said. “I think we needed to add the pieces that we did, whether that’s grit, leadership, toughness. Those were the pieces that were missing.”
Gerard Gallant coached Huberdeau for three years in junior hockey, and he’ll take over behind the Florida bench. The Panthers, who haven’t won a playoff series since playing in the Stanley Cup Final in 1996, fired Kevin Dineen in November before dismissing interim coach Peter Horachek in the offseason.
General manager Dale Tallon is banking on the new additions and established contributors to mesh. Florida finished last in power-play percentage (10.0) and on the penalty kill (76.0) last season.
“We’ve got to cut down our goals-against first. We’ve got to improve our special teams,” Tallon said. “And these other guys have to bounce back and have good years. We can’t have guys have bad years like they had.”
Stamkos has 15 goals and eight assists in his last 13 games against the Panthers, who have dropped four straight meetings.
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