For Steven Stamkos, the bottom line always was, as he said, "getting back to playing with the guys." Yes, playing for Canada at February's Olympics would have been terrific. But ultimately, the Lightning captain said, his main concern, after breaking his right tibia in a Nov. 11 game at Boston, was getting back on the ice to help the team make the playoffs. That is why Tampa Bay's first postseason appearance since 2011, and only its second since 2007, is so rewarding. "I always talk about when we were in (the playoffs) a couple of years ago, how that was the most fun a lot of us had playing hockey in our lives," Stamkos said. Stamkos, 24, despite missing 45 games, tied for the team lead with 25 goals, including 11 in 20 games after resuming his season March 6 with a titanium rod in his leg. He took a few minutes recently at the Tampa Bay Times Forum to reflect on a tumultuous season that included the trade of friend and mentor Marty St. Louis to the Rangers:
As you look back on your rehab, what was your biggest motivation?
The thing that helped me most was not feeling sorry for myself. It was a lot of hard work. It was a lot of days when you woke up knowing there was going to be some pain but the pain was going to be for the better. I look back and it's been five months. Some people said I might not be back before six months. I know I'm not at that level that I can be, but I eventually will be.
Does going through such a serious injury and rehab change your perspective on your career?
You just appreciate the game so much more and the opportunity to play again and play in the playoffs. That's what I'm excited about.
How has this season made you a stronger, better player?
It's been a crazy year with the injury and missing the Olympics and the Marty trade. It's just reassuring that all the hard work you put in and, collectively, the team gives you a chance in the playoffs. Sometimes you go through stuff like this — the sacrifices and adversity — and for the most part, you would go through it again.
What do you expect from yourself in the postseason?
It's nice to score goals and get the points, but when you come back from something like (the broken leg), you want to make sure you get your game to the level that can help you win. Sometimes it's tough. I expect a lot of myself. … I'm happy to be playing, and I want to contribute and help the team win. You just want to feel as good as you can.
Once you get into the playoffs, you never know. No one expected us to get to the conference final (in 2011). You get on a run and get some luck, you get a hot goaltender, you get in a groove, and things start to feel special.
And you shouldn't take that for granted, right?
This is my sixth year and only the second time in the playoffs. (So) you never know when you're going to get that chance. You want to take advantage of it. The beauty of our sport is any team can win. No matter what seed you are, once the playoffs start, it's the closest you're going to get to an even playing field in any sport. We're excited for that challenge.
9 OT/SO losses
8 OT/SO losses