PITTSBURGH — Lightning captain Steven Stamkos made his much-anticipated return Thursday in time for Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final against the Penguins.
Stamkos hadn't played since March 31, working his way back from April 4 surgery to repair a blood clot in his right collarbone area, a condition called thoracic outlet syndrome.
He said he didn't feel tentative at all, a minus-1 with two shots in 11:55 of ice time.
"In order to come back and play, you have to be past that, not only physically but mentally," Stamkos said. "I was past that. Felt pretty good."
Stamkos' surgeon, Karl Illig, told the Tampa Bay Times on Thursday that he cleared the All-Star awhile ago but the issue was Stamkos still being on blood thinners; players can't participate in games while on blood thinners. Illig said Stamkos received several opinions from hematologists and made the decision to return, a decision Illig said he supports.
"In all of life, it's risk versus benefit,"' Illig said by phone. "Steven's risks are very, very low. I support him. I think he's doing the right thing."
Illig couldn't say whether Stamkos, 26, is off blood thinners or if he was on the necessary regimen required to play. Illig credited Stamkos' work ethic, saying the center has been fine physically for weeks.
Stamkos had been skating with the team since April 26, getting himself in shape and hoping to give himself a chance to return.
Stamkos was coy Thursday morning, saying his status hadn't changed. He arrived on the early bus with the team to Consol Energy Center, participated in warmups and played.
Illig said the chance of Stamkos getting another clot are "very, very low." Said Illig: "I think he made a great decision."
NO CHANCE: G Ben Bishop, out with a lower left leg injury since Game 1, was still not ready to play, making the decision not to play in Game 7 an easy one. "It wasn't really much of a thought," Bishop said before the game. "I'm not there yet. You want to be out there, but it's not that close yet."
Bishop was targeting a return in the Stanley Cup final if the Lightning had advanced.
Bishop, who has two career Game 7 shutouts, spoke with his replacement, Andrei Vasilevskiy, who made his sixth straight start but first in a Game 7. "I told him, 'Deep breaths, stay calm. There's going to be a lot of emotions. Worry about stopping the puck. Don't make the game bigger than it is,' " Bishop said.
LINING UP: D Slater Koekkoek, coming off his first career playoff point (assist) and career-playoff-high 12:58 of ice time in Tuesday's Game 6, was in the lineup again even with the Lightning going with six defensemen. Veteran D Matt Carle was scratched.
"The biggest game I've ever been in," Koekkoek said.
But Koekkoek said his pregame routine wouldn't change: "It's going to be like the first six games. I'm going to go home and eat something and take a little napperoonsky."
NUTS AND BOLTS: RW Mike Blunden rejoined the team after going to the Ottawa area for the birth of his son, Beau, who was 7 pounds, 2 ounces. … The Lightning was scheduled to arrive in Tampa between 2:30-3:30 a.m. today. … F Jonathan Drouin, whose trade request-holdout-return and impressive postseason (five goals, 14 points) was one of the sport's biggest stories this season, told Fox Sports Sun "I'm sure I'll be back" next season.