ST. PAUL, Minn. — Funny thing during Monday's Lightning practice at the Xcel Energy Center.
Though the workout was supposed to be one in which Steven Stamkos was to test the strength of his broken right tibia with full-contact drills, it was turning, to coach Jon Cooper's dismay, into more of a hands-off exercise.
"I could see every time he had the puck no one would go near him," Cooper said. "I said, 'He's wearing a white jersey but he's not an egg, somebody hit him. Let's see what we have here.' "
What Tampa Bay has is a star center finally with a target date to return to the lineup: Saturday at home against the Red Wings.
How he feels in that game will determine his participation for Canada at this month's Olympics in Sochi, Russia, Stamkos said.
There still are caveats. The leg has to respond well to Monday's practice. And an X-ray when the Lightning returns to Tampa after tonight's game with the Wild will have to show continued mending.
But Stamkos, out since sliding into a goal post Nov. 11 at Boston, was confident.
"Even my last X-ray, there was enough there that once I felt good I can get back to playing," he said. "So this would be like a double check to make sure everything still looks great, which I can't imagine it doesn't by how it feels."
"We just have to differentiate where his mind is from what a doctor says," Cooper said. "If a doctor comes in and says, 'You're cleared to play, have at it,' I can't write his name (in the lineup) fast enough."
Stamkos' recovery is such a big deal in Canada, a reporter from TSN, Canada's ESPN equivalent, drove eight hours from Winnipeg to cover Monday's practice.
"Stamkos fever," Cooper joked. "It's a sickness. We all have it."
It has gotten more intense with Canada set to open its Olympic tournament Feb. 13 against Norway, and Stamkos having said he wanted to play one or two Lightning games prior to determine whether he could participate.
Saturday's game is Tampa Bay's last before the Olympic break. Monday's practice, in which Stamkos for the first time competed with full contact, was a gauge of his readiness.
After a little prodding from Cooper — "Nobody wants to hit him in the leg," defenseman Radko Gudas said — the center was challenged and bumped in the corners. He even participated in power-play practice for the first time, noting he was one-for-one on faceoffs.
"I thought it was the best he's looked since he's been on the ice," Cooper said. "By no means was that a physically demanding battle practice, but he did every drill and looked good doing it. He had a jump in his step."
Stamkos said his pain level is "manageable." He understands as the bone continues to heal for up to a year around a titanium rod, soft tissue re-acclimates to explosive movements and scar tissue is torn away, he likely will play with pain the rest of the season.
Even so, "At this point, right now, I can sit here and say this is the best it's ever felt on the ice, especially with the workload I had," Stamkos said. "A lot of it is physical, but there's a mental side, and (Monday) was climbing over another hurdle."
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected] View his blog at lightning.tampabay.com.