Jon Cooper wants to stop the conversation now: Steven Stamkos isn’t ready to play until he says so.
The coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning ruled out Stamkos for his team’s final round-robin game Saturday against the Philadelphia Flyers, which will determine the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Philadelphia won’t have top-line right winger Jakub Voracek, so neither team is at full strength.
“Injuries are unpredictable,” Cooper said of Stamkos. “As of right now, he’s out indefinitely until he’s not. And I’ll be the person to let you know when that is. But you should know that he’s working his tail off and he’s eager to come back.”
The Lightning beat Washington and Boston without Stamkos and will again turn to Vezina Trophy finalist Andrei Vasilevskiy as their starting goaltender. Carter Hart starts for Philadelphia, which is also 2-0-0 in round-robin play and will have rookie Joel Farabee on the first line in place of Voracek.
Coach Alain Vigneault would only say Voracek isn’t available to play against Tampa Bay.
“Jake’s got a unique skillset: a veteran guy that’s been around and has played in some big games,” Flyers defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “We’ll welcome him when he comes back and in the meantime keep chugging forward with the guys we have.”
Cooper said the Lightning have been focusing on peaking for Game 1 of their first best-of-seven series, which will be next week. Vigneault’s Flyers have been attempting to balance between winning and tuning up for when their season is on the line.
In the Western Conference, the Vegas Golden Knights set the goal of earning the No. 1 seed from the first day of training camp last month. That will be on the line Saturday when they face off against Colorado. The Golden Knights are going hard for home ice in the West even though there are no fans and all games are being played in Edmonton.
“The higher the seed, the easier path you get,” Vegas coach Peter DeBoer said. “When I say easy path, you get the lowest-ranked opponent, you get last (line) change, you get the benefit sometimes of a home dressing room over a visitor dressing room. There’s small benefits to it. I like the fact that our group thinks it’s important and we’ve played that way and prepared that way.”
Vegas isn’t 100% healthy yet with winger Max Pacioretty still not ready to play. DeBoer continues to say Pacioretty is close, though he’ll have to quarantine in Edmonton and produce four negative coronavirus test results before being eligible to practice or play.
The Golden Knights came back from deficits to beat Dallas and St. Louis, and look like a buzzsaw no matter who’s in goal between Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner. The Avalanche similarly have a two-headed goaltending monster in Phillip Grubauer and Pavel Francouz, and coach Jared Bednar isn’t eager to tip his hand on which one he’ll go with in the next round.
The Avalanche are also healthy. Grubauer, Francouz, captain Gabriel Landeskog, winger Mikko Rantanen and star rookie defenseman Cale Makar all missed time with injuries during the season.
With the whole crew together, Colorado is undefeated in two round-robin games and living up to the expectations set internally to get the top seed.
“We want to try and get home ice,” Bednar said. “It’s been a goal of ours and we want it and our guys are playing like they want it. I like the focus and the intensity from our group at this point. Hopefully it takes even another step here for Vegas so we know that we’re good to go coming out of it.”
Game times haven’t been set for Philadelphia-Tampa Bay or Vegas-Colorado because there could be a deciding Game 5 in one or both of two series: Pittsburgh vs. Montreal and Edmonton vs. Chicago. Game 4 in each of those series took place Friday.
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