The Tampa Bay Lightning were down 4-1 late in a game against Florida when Steven Stamkos pumped home a power play goal at the 16:48 mark of the third period. It was his 36th goal of the season and 14th power play tally. It was, unfortunately, not enough to spark a comeback and the Lightning lost, 5-2. Not only did they lose the game, they lost a spot atop the Atlantic Division that they had claimed just one night earlier.
It was an inconsequential goal in an important game. It might have been the last goal Stamkos scored in a Lightning uniform. He picked up two assists in his next game against Toronto and then was held off the scoreboard against Montreal on the last day of March.
After the game against Montreal, Stamkos felt some discomfort in his right arm along with tingling in his hand. A visit to the doctor’s office revealed that he had Effort Thrombosis, a blood clot caused by “strenuous athletic activity.” In other words, Stamkos was so jacked that his anterior scalene muscle and ribs were compressing a vein. Surgery was scheduled for Monday to remove the blood clot and he was set to be out of action for 1-3 months.
Of all the fan bases that this could happen to, Tampa Bay Lightning were the best prepared to deal with it since the same exact thing happened to Andrei Vasilevskiy at the beginning of the season. Still, it came at a most inopportune time for the team. A week earlier, Anton Stralman broke his leg in a game against the New York Islanders. So, the Lightning were fighting for first place in the Division and looking at a partial playoff run without their second best defender and their leading goal scorer.
For Stamkos, the injury kept him from his second straight 40-goal season (and franchise leading fifth overall). It also led to him missing playoff games for the first time in his career.
The problem wasn’t the blood clots or the surgery itself. The Lightning captain was back on the ice three weeks after the operation. He was kept out of game action due to the blood thinners he was taking to ensure there weren’t any clots following the procedure. Hockey is a violent game that involves some very sharp skates flying about the ice and often leaves its practitioners bloodied and bruised. Those two things are quite dangerous for a person on blood thinners.
It was frustrating for Stamkos, who told ESPN:
"I feel great. That's kind of the tough part for me. Feeling physically ready to play almost, but obviously with this type of injury and the blood thinners and stuff like that, you have to take your time. ... Any contact, any bruising, anything like that can lead to complications.”
The fact that he was able to participate in practices led to endless speculation about when he would be ready to return. There was no way he would be ready for the opening round against the Detroit Red Wings. Luckily, his replacement on the roster, Jonathan Drouin, led the team to a quick five-game victory.
He also missed his chance to take on childhood friend/possible rival John Tavares in the second round. Again, the Lightning had little trouble advancing in five games as Victor Hedman racked up eight points in the series.
In the Eastern Conference Finals against the Penguins speculation really ramped up that he would be coming back. It only intensified after Ben Bishop hurt his knee in the first game. Before Game 2, Stamkos addressed the media in regard to the speculation. After having some fun at first by saying, “You’ll have to find out” when asked if he would play in the game. That turned 100% by the end of the interview session with Stamkos saying,
“We could come to a conclusion after all of our research that it’s just not safe to play at all in these playoffs. That’s the reality that I’m living with.”
Fans were despondent, with the belief that between the injury and his pending free agency status, they had seen the last of Stamkos in uniform. The doom and gloom did make his Game 7 return all the more dramatic, but it wasn’t enough for the Lightning to pull off the upset victory.
It’s impossible to know if the injury in any way affected Stamkos’ free agency status. Were some teams worried about his bad luck in injuries, or the small possibility that the blood clots could become a reoccurring problem?
If Stamkos had been available for the entire series maybe the Lightning could have won the Stanley Cup and he would feel it was time to move on from Tampa. In the end, everything worked out (except for the bitterness of losing to the Penguins).
Since he ended up re-signing with the Lightning, March 26th is just another day that Stamkos scored a goal. Had things played out differently, it could have had a whole different meaning.