Nikita Kucherov and Steven Stamkos each practiced with the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday and each is expected to play in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup First Round at the Florida Panthers on Sunday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVAS, NHL.TV).
Kucherov did not play during the regular season after having hip surgery Dec. 29. Stamkos missed the Lightning’s last 16 games with a lower-body injury.
The forwards were on the ice together May 5 in a full-team practice for the first time.
“We’re hoping those guys are going to be good to go,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. “They’re looking good now, so signs are pointing for them to be in the lineup and we hope they will be.”
Stamkos, the Lightning captain, scored 34 points (17 goals, 17 assists) in 38 games this season.
Tampa Bay also expects defensemen Victor Hedman (lower body) and Ryan McDonagh (upper body) to return for Game 1 after each missed the last two games of the regular season, a 5-1 loss at the Panthers on Saturday and a 4-0 loss at Florida on Monday.
Hedman was paired with Jan Rutta and McDonagh with Erik Cernak in practice Thursday. Hedman was on the top power-play unit with Stamkos, Kucherov, and forwards Brayden Point and Alex Killorn.
Hedman would not address his injury or a report by Sportsnet on Saturday that he will require surgery in the offseason.
“I’m not going to speculate on injuries,” Hedman said. “Whoever is going to be on the ice is going to be ready to go. That’s the bottom line. This is the time of year when you put a lot of things aside and you just focus on the game that’s ahead of you. Same goes for everyone in that room. We’re ready to go. The 18 guys that are going to get the nod for the first game have got to go out there and empty the tank.
“It’s going to be tough matchups and tough games. You’ve just got to battle through it.”
Hedman and McDonagh each expressed his excitement to see Stamkos and Kucherov as full participants, each on regular forward lines and the top power-play unit.
Kucherov was with Point and Ondrej Palat, reconnecting with his linemates from the Stanley Cup run last season, when he led the NHL with 34 points (seven goals, 27 assists) in 25 playoff games. Stamkos was on a line with Anthony Cirelli and Killorn.
“They’ve worked extremely hard to be as prepared as they can and I think they’re just anxious to get out there and help us in certain situations all over the ice,” McDonagh said. “Especially for Kucherov’s sake, he hasn’t played hockey in a long time and that guy’s passion for the game is pretty incredible.
“We’re anxious to have them back here and thankful to get a few days here and really get some team practices in and work on some different things. In the end, those guys are elite players and know what they need to do and they’ve been working hard on their own to get prepared here hopefully for a long playoff run.”