Let’s take a look at Thursday’s five-some of games, with all start times according to Eastern Standard Time (ET).
New Jersey @ Toronto
Call it the Clash of the Dreamers: the Maple Leafs are heating up and remain eight points out of a playoff spot while the Devils are on fire but remain 15 points behind the Hurricanes. Both teams face considerable odds, but whichever crew ends up with two points will dream a little bigger.
Los Angeles @ Pittsburgh
The Penguins are a team the Kings probably look up to – at least from a “we can get there someday” standpoint – but right now Pittsburgh resembles Los Angeles. After all, the Pens’ top players are injured, so they are playing an even tighter style predicated on attacking defensemen and the skills of a center who wears No. 11. Hmm …
Carolina @ Philadelphia
If the 2011 playoffs began today, this would be the first round’s top versus bottom seed series. In fact, the first game would even take place in Philly. We’re a long way from that actually happening (especially considering the competition the Hurricanes face), but it would probably be as good a 1 vs. 8 matchup will get in the East. (For the West, it must be Vancouver vs. Chicago, right?)
Buffalo @ Florida
It’s a game between the 10th-place Sabres and the 11th-place Panthers, with Buffalo looking a little stronger (especially considering the fact that the offensively challenged Panthers traded away former 20-goal scorer Michael Frolik). Not helping matters for Florida is their home struggles: they’ll try to avoid their fifth-straight loss in Sunrise tonight.
NY Islanders @ Montreal
The Canadiens won’t get a chance to lick their wounds from that violent and potentially deflating loss against the Bruins, as they host the lowly Isles tonight. Whichever poor soul plays in New York’s net might have a long night if the Habs release their vengeful anger on Thursday, though.
As if Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final couldn’t get any more dramatic, it has — Tampa Bay captain Steve Stamkos, who hasn’t played since Mar. 31, will make his playoff debut against the Penguins tonight.
Stamkos underwent vascular surgery in early April to correct a blood clotting issue, and has remained on blood thinners ever since. While there’s been no confirmation he’s off medication, he did tell Sportsnet he’d be able to return to the lineup once he was.
Stamkos reiterated that he’s still on the same prescription of blood thinners he was given earlier this month. He takes a 12-hour dosage, twice a day, and it has been suggested to him that once he is cleared to stop taking the medication, Stamkos conceivably could return to the Lightning lineup almost immediately.
That’s why I’m trying to stay in shape,” he said.
Per NHL.com, Stamkos took the warmup and participated in line rushes centering Ondrej Palat and Ryan Callahan.
It’s been exactly eight weeks since Stamkos played his last game. At the time of his diagnosis, the Lightning said his timetable for recovery was 1-3 months.
To say his return will be a boost is a major understatement. Aside from the emotional factor, Stamkos led the Bolts in goals this year, with 36, and would presumably spark a power play that’s gone just 2-for-12 in the series.
Steve Stamkos took the team bus to tonight’s Eastern Conference Game 7 in Pittsburgh. As TVA noted, it was the first time he’s arrived early for a game in these playoffs.
In his pregame presser, Bolts head coach Jon Cooper refused to answer any questions about Stamkos’ availability.
And then Stamkos took the warmup.
As such, the drama surrounding Tampa Bay’s captain has reached an all-time high. Stamkos, who’s been out of the lineup since early April due to blood clots, looks as though he’s on the verge of an emotional comeback as the Lightning try to win an ECF Game 7 — on the road — for a second consecutive season.
“If Stamkos is in the lineup, it’s our best foot forward,” Cooper said. “If he’s not in the lineup, it’s because he wasn’t eligible to play.”
No word if No. 91 is still on the blood thinning medication he’s been taking since undergoing vascular surgery on Apr. 4.
EDINA, Minn. (AP) Minnesota Wild left wing Zach Parise has been rehabilitating his back injury without surgery, putting him on track to be at full strength by September.
Parise said Thursday he’s “happy with the way everything’s going.” He said he’s been able to work out as he normally does during the summer, despite missing the playoffs because of the injury.
Parise said there’s “no question” he’ll be ready to play for Team USA in the World Cup of Hockey tournament.
Parise joined teammates Erik Haula, Jason Pominville, Nate Prosser, Jared Spurgeon and Jason Zucker at an autograph signing to raise money for people affected by the wildfires in Alberta. The parents of Spurgeon’s wife, Danielle, lost their home to a fire in the Edmonton area.