MONTREAL — As the locker stalls were put together in the visiting dressing room at Bell Centre Tuesday afternoon, realization set in for the Tampa Bay Lightning — no jersey hung for Steven Stamkos.
The Lightning took to the ice on Tuesday to face the Montreal Canadiens and for the first time since Jan. 27, 2009, Stamkos was not in the Tampa Bay lineup.
Earlier in the day, Stamkos had surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston to reset a broken tibia bone in his right lower leg suffered during Monday’s afternoon loss at Boston.
The surgery was performed without complications and Stamkos is expected to make a full recovery, general manager Steve Yzerman told reporters at the NHL general managers’ meetings Tuesday afternoon in Toronto.
The team issued a statement Tuesday evening that Stamkos underwent successful surgery and “is expected to return to Tampa on Thursday to begin rehabilitation immediately. A prospective timetable has not yet been set for his return to the ice.”
A rod was inserted in the leg to stabilize the bone.
The injury could sideline Stamkos until at least March, keeping one of the game’s top players out for an extended period of time.
“I don’t care whether he’s on another team or not, a player like that is what people pay to come and watch,’’ Boston head coach Claude Julien said after Monday’s game. “You don’t like seeing that, even as an opposing coach.’’
Stamkos entered Tuesday’s games tied for the lead league with 14 goals and 23 points. He also had taken on more responsibility this season, as leader in the locker room and in his commitment to playing better defense.
“Stammer has been playing the best hockey of his career; he’s a dominant player every night and you don’t replace those players,’’ Yzerman said. “There’s no good time for this, but he has been playing the best hockey he has ever played and just gone to another level.’’
Now the Lightning must move forward knowing Stamkos will not be filling up the net as he recovers from a serious injury.
“There’s no sugar coating it, he’s a huge part of our team,’’ Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said. “You can make an argument here that if you were going to hand out the MVP of the league right now, you’d be hard pressed not to give it to him.
“So, in saying that, is that a hole in our team? It is. But one thing I can say is Steve (Yzerman) has done an unreal job of building this organization from the bottom up. Now it’s that old cliché — somebody’s got to step up. We’ve just got to pick ourselves up here and we’ll see what we’re made of.
“But it’s a tough one for the game because you want to see guys that have ‘it.’ Steven Stamkos has ‘it.’’’
Tampa Bay has been a surprise in the standings, entering Tuesday’s action atop the Atlantic Division with 12 wins in the first 17 games. But there are questions about whether the Lightning will keep pace without their top player.
“That is why everybody in that room is like, ‘Let’s prove to everybody that we are not a fluke,’ ” Cooper said. “We are up near the top of the standings for a reason.’’
The Lightning remain confident.
“Obviously, Stammer’s goals are going to be missed,” captain Marty St. Louis said. “But other guys are going to have to score and it starts with me; I have to be better. Hopefully, I’ll be able to lead the way.
“It’s not going to be one guy, it’s going to be everybody. But this is the time where you want to play well for a guy that has given everything to this organization. So, it’s time to go to work.’’