OTTAWA — Lightning C Steven Stamkos did not talk to reporters after Thursday's morning skate, but that didn't stop talk about his possible return to the lineup and participation for Canada in next month's Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
The focus now is on Stamkos' first session of heavy contact and puck battles. That crucial step will have to come soon if he is to be cleared in time to play.
"He's going to have to start battling with guys in the corners just to see how those instinctive movements go," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "He can do all the crossovers he wants out there, have fun and go up and down, but those battles are where it's going to come into play. It's going to have to happen here soon."
Very soon if Stamkos, out since Nov. 11 with a broken bone in his right leg, wants to play for Tampa Bay at home Thursday against the Maple Leafs or Saturday against the Red Wings. He has more wiggle room if his first game is in Canada's Olympic opener Feb. 13 against Norway.
"It's got to feel good in practice with some contact, there's no denying that," Stamkos said Tuesday in Toronto. "You can't mimic a gamelike situation without playing in a game, but at least get a couple of good, hard practices in with some hard contact."
Lightning GM and Canadian national team executive director Steve Yzerman declined to say if Stamkos, who has participated in light contact, is or is not cleared for puck battles.
Cooper, though, made it sound as if the timing rested with Stamkos, and that when it happens, it likely won't be a public spectacle.
"I'm just throwing this out. This is my opinion only," Cooper said. "But I think if that was to go on, he would rather do it without 300 cameras around. If I was in that position, I would want to test the waters as well."
The Lightning's next scheduled practice out of the media glare in Canada, where Stamkos' every move has been watched, is Monday in Minnesota.
"The body is a pretty good indicator," Stamkos said in Toronto. "If you're doing certain movements and you feel something that's going to be uncomfortable, you know you're not ready to play the game. You have to play the game on instincts, and if you're hesitant in any regard, you're not ready to go."
"The thing we've said from the beginning is we will not put his health at risk to go to the Olympics," Cooper said. "I know that's his top priority to go over there, but his health will override that."
WHISTLE STOP: A big question after Tampa Bay's 5-3 loss to the Senators was why play was not stopped in the first period when G Ben Bishop was lying injured on the ice.
With Bishop out of the net, Ottawa's Marc Methot scored an easy goal that made the score 1-0 1:49 into the game.
Referees and linesmen have the option to stop play when players are injured. Captain Marty St. Louis said one of the referees told him he would have done so had the Lightning gained possession of the puck.
"But we never did get control," Cooper said.
St. Louis added, "Reverse the situation, and we're probably happy they don't blow the whistle."
PLUS PLAYER: LW Ondrej Palat entered the game leading all rookies at plus-22 and had not had a minus game since Dec. 21, one of only nine minus games he'd had all season. Though he had two assists, Palat was minus-1 against the Senators.
ODDS AND ENDS: The Canadiens called up Christian Thomas from AHL Hamilton. The right wing is the son of Lightning assistant coach Steve Thomas. … St. Louis' assist on Victor Hedman's goal gave him 600 career assists. His 965 career points tied Maurice Richard for 85th all-time. … F Tom Pyatt and D Keith Aulie were scratched.