Lightning’s Stamkos closing in on return vs. Stars

Severely outplayed in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final in losing 4-1 to the Dallas Stars Saturday, the Tampa Bay Lightning appeared optimistic Sunday about seeing their captain, Steven Stamkos, return to game action.

Coach Jon Cooper said Stamkos “is inching his way closer” but declined to specify whether he’d be available for Monday’s Game 2.

“I guess there’s always a chance, but as of now, I don’t think so,” Cooper said. “But that’s why you’ve got to tune in and find out.”

Stamkos has missed six-plus months since having surgery to repair a core muscle injury. He has been practicing with the team and even took the ice in a game jersey to celebrate the Lightning’s winning the East title last week.

Stars coach Rick Bowness, a former Lightning assistant under Cooper, fully appreciates the difference Stamkos can make.

“Listen, he’s a great player. He changes the whole look on the power play, so that’s a big factor,” Bowness said. “We’re expecting him to play at some point, and we’ll just have to see how he’s utilized. But immediately, you’re concerned with the impact he’ll have on their power play.”

The Lightning can use a boost. Their power play has fizzled in going 0-of-14 in the past four games, and their leading scorers are suddenly slumping — and limping.

Brayden Point has a goal and assist in his past four games, while missing two games with an undisclosed injury. Nikita Kucherov, who leads the playoffs with 26 points (six goals, 20 assists), has managed just four assists in his past five games.

“You can see it out there, guys get frustrated, they’re slumping their shoulders, they’re slamming their sticks, they’re slamming doors,” Dallas forward Jason Dickinson said. “Is our goal to frustrate them? No. Our goal is to stop them from creating chances, and frustrating them is just an effect of that.

“Obviously, it’s going to have an impact on their mentality and morale. But we’re just going out there trying to play our game.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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