TAMPA — There he was. On the ice. Skating. At practice.
Steven Stamkos, No. 91, the captain, the Lightning's best player.
Stamkos is back.
Except, he isn't. Not really. Not yet.
He wore a red jersey Tuesday, while his Lightning teammates wore blue or white. He stood alone and antsy at center ice, while teammates worked on the power play. He darted around with a puck by himself, while teammates went through drills.
With Stamkos being on the ice with teammates for the first time since being diagnosed with a blood clot on April 2, you might want to believe that he is close to returning. But his light participation only magnified his absence and just how far away he still is from helping the Lightning win a Stanley Cup.
Nothing has changed in terms of his return. He is out one to three months. He hasn't reached a month yet.
"It's really just a waiting game now,'' Stamkos said. "Obviously, you can't rush back in from things of this magnitude. I'd say nothing has changed in that regard. I feel great.''
Feeling great almost makes it worse.
"That's kind of the tough part for me, feeling physically ready to play almost,'' Stamkos said, "but obviously with this type of injury and the blood thinners and stuff like that, you have to take your time.''
How much time?
Stamkos smiled: "That's the million dollar question.''
The Lightning begins the second round of the playoffs tonight against the Islanders at Amalie Arena. Stamkos would give anything to be there.
"I was really excited about this playoff run and what we could do with pretty much the same team as last year,'' Stamkos said. "There is nothing like playing in these situations. This is what you work hard for all summer, all year and that's what was really disappointing when I got that news.''
The news came just as the regular season was coming to a close.
Stamkos felt fine in a game against the Canadiens April 2 at Amalie Arena. He worked out afterward. That was when the problems started.
He felt heaviness in his right arm, a numbness. It reminded him of the symptoms teammate Andrei Vasilevskiy had when Vasilevskiy was discovered to have had a blood clot last summer.
"That's what set the alarms off,'' Stamkos said.
It might have saved his life.
"Everyone sees you as a hockey player, but when you go through things like that, it puts a lot of things into perspective, and life in general,'' Stamkos said.
"Obviously, I'm very glad everything has gone as well as it has so far, that we caught it when we did. The timing (stinks), but things happen for a reason.''
The timing did stink.
Stamkos was heating up. He had seven goals and five assists in his final nine games. The Lightning started to resemble last season's team. It started to resemble a team that could go on a deep playoff run.
"It was just so out of the blue,'' Stamkos said. "Coming down the stretch, I felt I was playing my best hockey. I felt the best.
"And then this pops up.''
Two days after the Montreal game, Stamkos had surgery. He wouldn't go into detail, and he would not comment on speculation that there was a setback.
Now, he says he is well on the road to returning, that his career definitely will resume at some point. He just doesn't know when. No one does.
In the meantime, he has had to be careful off the ice, too. He is still the captain and has plenty to offer. But he doesn't want to overstep his bounds.
"You definitely don't want to be a distraction during the playoffs,'' Stamkos said. "I've tried to be there for games and practices and interact with the guys. That's never going to change. … (But) they have to go out there and focus. The last thing they need is a distraction. I've tried to walk that line.''
He should know that he is always welcome.
"He's a big part to this team and why we are where we are,'' goaltender Ben Bishop said.
I think everyone's happy to see him,'' center Tyler Johnson said. "We're a family. We're brothers. We like to be around each other.''
And coach Jon Cooper said, "Anytime you can have him around, for sure, we want him around.''
Of course, the other big story involving Stamkos is his contract. It's up after the season. He will be an unrestricted free agent.
But now is not the time for that. Stamkos brushed aside all contract talk Tuesday. All he is thinking about is getting healthy and playing again.
He knows that by practicing Tuesday that everyone — fans, media, maybe even the team — will ramp up expectations that he can return before the playoffs are over.
"That's what I want, too,'' he said.
But Stamkos knows he can't push it. This isn't a pain tolerance thing. This isn't a sprained knee or broken bone.
He is on blood thinners. Imagine what a big hit to the brain could do to a person on blood thinners.
So he must wait until doctors tell him he can play. In the meantime, there's nothing he can do.
"I'm gearing up like I'm going to be able to play,'' Stamkos said. "You just have to give yourself a chance.''
He is not expected to play in this series. He might not return this season. But it was good to see him on the ice Tuesday.
A little sad, too.