‘We love him’ — Bolts heap praise on Stamkos as uncertain future awaits

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This may have been Steve Stamkos‘ last game in a Tampa Bay uniform.

If it was, it didn’t go according to script.

But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t special.

Stamkos stunned the hockey world on Thursday night by making his playoff debut in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, returning from a two-month absence due to a blood clotting issue.

After undergoing vascular surgery and spending weeks on blood thinners, the captain was cleared to return for his team’s most crucial game of the season — one the Bolts lost, 2-1, the narrowest of margins.

The outcome didn’t take away from how Tampa’s players and coaches felt about Stamkos’ return

“He’s an extremely important player on our team, and we weren’t quite sure when this was going to happen, but a decision was made that he could play for Game 7,” head coach Jon Cooper said. “It was an emotional boost for all of us. The guys were really excited to have him back, and I thought he did a great job.”

By the boxscore, Stamkos’ impact on the game was minimal. He received less than 12 minutes of ice time and finished minus-1. But he did have two shots on net — one of them showing just how dangerous, even in a limited capacity, No. 91 can be:

“I thought I beat him,” Stamkos told NHL.com. “It just went through him and out the other side.”

The focus for Stamkos and the Bolts now shifts to his contract situation. Slated to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, the former 60-goal scorer projects to be the biggest star to hit the market since Zach Parise and Ryan Suter became UFAs in 2012.

Those two, you may recall, cashed in quite nicely, signing identical 13-year, $98 million deals.

So you can see why Stamkos’ future is of great interest across the league.

Of course, nobody has officially ruled out the 26-year-old’s return to Tampa Bay, and tonight’s drama probably strengthened some pretty serious emotional ties. Remember, this is the only team he’s ever known. The Lightning made Stamkos the first overall pick in 2008 and, six years later, the 10th captain in franchise history. He won two Rocket Richard trophies with the Bolts, and played in a pair of Eastern Conference Finals and one Stanley Cup Final.

He’s the team’s leader and face of the franchise. That’s not small stuff.

But in the end, it might not matter. It’s important to remember the Lightning got to this point without Stamkos because they’ve got incredible depth and some really good young players. Those young players will need to be paid too, and there might not be enough money under the cap for GM Steve Yzerman to make Stamkos an offer he can’t refuse.

Which is why it was hard not to listen to comments the Bolts made tonight, and wonder if they’re aware of what the future probably holds.

“We hope we can stick together, but you just never know,” Boyle said, per the Tampa Bay Times. “Thought we were destined for some pretty special things.”