TAMPA — Steven Stamkos picked up steam near the Lightning blue line early in Thursday's first period.
By the time the captain reached center ice, he was seemingly at warp speed. Stamkos, 27, chasing a Vladislav Namestnikov pass off the boards, split two Avalanche defenders like they were pylons before his backhand went bar down.
"Wow," associate coach Rick Bowness said. "That was as fast as I've seen him skate. He just blew by everybody."
There is a metal rod in Stamkos' right leg, broken during a game in Boston four years ago. His right knee, surgically repaired just more than a year ago, has its good days and bad. There are times he tries to protect it, avoiding certain movements. "The new norm," Stamkos calls it.
Yet here is Stamkos, the NHL's leading scorer and the Atlantic Division's top vote-getter for January's All-Star Game in Tampa. He's the unquestioned leader and face of the league's top team heading into tonight's showdown with Winnipeg.
Everyone — including Stamkos — wondered when he would be back to his old self. Turns out, he got there a lot quicker than many thought.
"I'm sure there are people out there that thought I wouldn't be able to come back from (the knee surgery) and play elite hockey again," Stamkos said. "I've always believed in myself, and I'm fortunate to play with the guys I'm playing with. If all else fails, you fall back on the work you put in and preparation you put in. And that's what can give you the confidence."
Stamkos drew faith from his experience, having come back from the broken leg (2013-14) and a blood clot (2015-16), and is playing the best hockey of his life. The knee injury, a torn lateral meniscus suffered in a November 2016 game against the Red Wings, led to Stamkos' toughest rehabilitation yet.
There's an above-ground pool near the Lightning dressing room at Amalie Arena that should be named after Stamkos. It was there where his road to recovery began with non-weight-bearing exercises to rebuild strength. When Stamkos couldn't run, he swam.
"It's the hardest thing. It's no fun," he said. "Very rarely (when) you're in a pool you're actually swimming. You're usually in there with a cocktail. (Swimming) was an eye-opener, and a great workout. It's something I didn't enjoy, but it's paid off."
Stamkos said that when he scores a goal like the one Thursday, he thinks back to all the hard work he did in the summer with longtime trainer Gary Roberts, the grappling and gymnastic-type movements to help his body just react. Islanders center John Tavares, friends with Stamkos since being childhood teammates, said Stamkos' work ethic and drive got him back. Bowness marvels at Stamkos' "inner strength."
"He's always been a great player," Tavares said. "Even when we were kids, he was the best of the bunch. It takes a lot of discipline to go through the things he's gone through over a period of time, the ability to focus on the task at hand, his drive to want to be great."
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Stamkos has credited hit hot start to his teammates, most notably Nikita Kucherov, the two sharing the kind of chemistry Stamkos had with former linemate Marty St. Louis. Stamkos said Kucherov has pushed him with his work ethic.
Said Kucherov: "He's one of the best players in the world."
Kucherov is the Lightning's leading goal scorer and might be its most dynamic player. Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy is probably Tampa Bay's MVP. But Stamkos' presence, on the ice and in the dressing room, helps tie everything together. It was something that was lacking last season, when Stamkos missed 65 games after injuring the knee and the Lightning missed the playoffs.
"He's our leader, our captain," Alex Killorn said. "Just to have that voice in our locker room, on the ice, just makes our team more complete. We're not looking for guys to step up. We know who our guy is."
Sabres wing Ryan O'Reilly, who played with Stamkos for Canada at the 2016 World Cup, put it this way:
"(The Lightning's) lineup is dangerous as it is, and they're still a great team when he wasn't there. But add him and that takes them over the top. There's a reason why they're one of the best teams in the league, and he's a huge part of that."
Stamkos is happy to serve as playmaker for Kucherov, his 29 assists dwarfing his 12 goals (eight coming on the power play). But that's more of an adaptation than an evolution for the two-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner as the league's top goal scorer.
"Your natural instincts are always going to be there," Stamkos said. "And offensively I feel like I always have."
Stamkos says he might never feel 100 percent healthy again: "Those areas are never going to feel like they were."
There are times he doesn't feel like he's all the way back or is playing his best hockey. But when he goes through a quiet stretch, like he did the past few weeks, he has plenty of perspective.
"I'm just happy to be out there playing," he said. "It's nice to get back on the horse."
Catch him if you can.