Steven Stamkos’ return for Game 7 erases questions about willingness to stay with the Lightning – ESPN

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PITTSBURGH — Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos knew the question was coming.

He sat at his locker after the team’s 2-1 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals Thursday night at Consol Energy Center, distraught by the loss and the team’s inability to reach the Stanley Cup finals for a second consecutive season. As tough as the loss was, many wondered whether this would be Stamkos’ last game as a member of the Lightning, a team and organization he’s known since it selected him first overall in the 2008 draft.

When asked if he’s thought about the possibility this could have been his last game in a Lightning sweater, No. 91 quickly answered, “No.”

It’s too soon to start thinking that way, but on July 1 he will become an unrestricted free agent and there will be teams that will come calling if Lightning vice president/general manager Steve Yzerman doesn’t re-sign Stamkos before then.

Both sides have kept negotiations quiet. Now that Tampa’s season is over, talks should pick up because the Lightning should sign their franchise player and lock him up for a long time.

When Stamkos stepped onto the ice for Game 7, that should have been a strong indication to Yzerman the captain’s desire to stay. Stamkos wouldn’t have played if his life was in danger, but he had been sidelined 56 days and 21 games while recovering from surgery to correct a blood clot near his collarbone. He had surgery on April 4 and the minimum amount of time he could miss was eight weeks. He tried everything he could to return sooner, but it wasn’t the case.

If Stamkos was thinking of being elsewhere in the future, why would he risk his health and play in this game?

Sure, he’s a competitor and wants to win. Yes, he wanted a chance to return to the Stanley Cup finals, only this time to win it. The fact is, he took a chance probably sooner than expected and Yzerman should take notice of that.

After the Game 7 loss, Stamkos wanted to focus on the team and not his own career.

“All the adversity that we overcame as a group, I couldn’t be more prouder of the guys with how far we came with all the injuries we had,” Stamkos said. “I feel horrible for the guys that battled and I was able to play one game, but those guys had a hell of a postseason. I was honored to be on the ice with those guys tonight and too bad the result wasn’t better.”

It also didn’t help that No. 1 goaltender Ben Bishop was sidelined for the majority of the series after he suffered a lower-leg injury in Game 1. Defenseman Anton Stralman returned to the lineup after missing the final eight games of the regular season, and the first two rounds of the playoffs, with a broken left fibula. Other Tampa players were likely battling injuries that should be disclosed in the coming days.

For Stamkos, he knew there was a good chance he would play in Game 7 after the Lightning suffered a devastating loss on home ice in Game 6. Being that close to returning to the Stanley Cup finals, he wanted to help his team.

“All along I just gave myself a chance to be ready if needed when called upon,” Stamkos said. “Tonight was the night and it didn’t end up working out. It’s tough right now. It’s a tough one to swallow. When it’s all said and done, these guys can look at themselves in the mirror because they battled. I don’t think a lot of people thought we’d make it this far.”

Lightning coach Jon Cooper knew when Stamkos returned it would be in a limited role, but his presence would serve as a motivational factor. Stamkos saw 11:55 of total ice time, with two shots. He was a minus-1, had two hits and was 3-5 in the faceoff circle over 20 shifts.

“He’s an extremely important player on our team,” Cooper said. “We weren’t quite sure when this was going to happen but a decision was made that he could play for Game 7. It was an emotional boost for all of us. The guys were really excited to have him back and he did a great job. I tried to get him in early. He was taking really short shifts early until he was getting his legs, and every time I looked down on him, he was feeling more comfortable. In the third period, he was like he never left … . He was a big boost for us and makes us a better hockey team.”

Many of the Lightning players were too concerned about the season-ending loss to even think about what this team would look like without Stamkos on and off the ice. Veteran Brian Boyle can’t fathom that thought because he understands exactly what Stamkos means to the team, the fan base and the community.

“Oh, man. Just from what I’ve seen in two years, the amount of stuff he does behind closed doors, and what you guys don’t see, everything that he does for Tampa in general, what he’s done for the players on this team, it can’t really be expressed in a two-minute blurb,” Boyle said. “It’s good to see him. It’s good to see him on the ice and good to see him feeling better. It stings that we couldn’t pick him up. He played great and almost scored for us in the second. I was happy to be out there playing with him.”

When asked if he could imagine what the Lightning organization would be like without No. 91, Boyle could only shake his head in disbelief.

“I’m trying to wrap my head around our season being over right now,” Boyle said. “That’s enough bad news for me. I’m confident and I’m hoping he’s back. Everything kind of changes year to year with the group and it’s hard to keep everybody together. We did that last year to this year and hopefully we can keep the group together. Again, it’s an unbelievable group to be a part of and I’m very fortunate and very blessed to be a part of this. The city that we play in, the people that we’re around, the people in the organization — everybody — I couldn’t ask for anything better. That’s what makes this [loss] a lot harder because you never know what’s going to happen in the offseason. We have a special group and it takes a special group to get as far as we did. It’s tough right now but I’m sure someday in the future I’ll look back on this season, and last season, very, very fondly.”

For nearly eight weeks, fans waited and hoped Stamkos could return to the lineup and help the Lightning reach the Stanley Cup finals. Now, they wait and see if he’ll continue to be the captain of the Tampa Bay Lightning next season and beyond.

Steven Stamkos’ return for Game 7 erases questions about willingness to stay with the Lightning – ESPN

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