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Lightning's Steven Stamkos looks close to top form in first game since November

A scramble in front of the Lightning goal has Matthew Peca, far left, and Erik Cernak, middle, helping out goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy during the third period of a 3-1 win against the Predators. Vasilevskiy, who made 29 saves, was “exceptional,” coach Jon Cooper says.
A scramble in front of the Lightning goal has Matthew Peca, far left, and Erik Cernak, middle, helping out goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy during the third period of a 3-1 win against the Predators. Vasilevskiy, who made 29 saves, was “exceptional,” coach Jon Cooper says.
Published Sep. 23, 2017

TAMPA — The wait felt like forever for Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, having gone 10 months without playing in a game.

It had been so long that Stamkos, 27, said he forgot some of his pregame routines as he headed to Amalie Arena to face the Predators.

"Once I got to the rink, they come pretty natural," he said.

The routines weren't the only things that returned quickly for Stamkos in a dazzling exhibition debut Friday night. It took just 33 seconds for him to make a splash.

Off a rush, Stamkos took a drop pass from Nikita Kucherov, then did a no-look, behind-the-back, cross-zone feed to streaking Victor Hedman, who finished it off.

"I couldn't have drawn it up any better," Stamkos said.

The same could be said for Stamkos' return from mid-November knee surgery in the Lightning's 3-1 victory. He had two assists in 19:05 of playing time, high among the team's forwards. It's just one game, and yes, it's the preseason, but if Friday was any indication of what Stamkos will look like this season — watch out.

"I couldn't have felt any better," said Stamkos, whose last game was Nov. 15. "From what I was expecting, it was even better. So I'm very pleased."

SILVER ANNIVERSARY: Lightning's Manon Rheaume made history 25 years ago Saturday.

Stamkos said it was a rewarding return after a long summer of rehab from a torn lateral meniscus, the toughest injury physically he has had to come back from. He said he didn't feel nervous heading into Friday; he was more excited.

"I was pleasantly surprised with just the calming influence I had in making plays again," Stamkos said.

Hedman said he knew Stamkos saw him before the first shift-assist.

"The talent he is, the natural he is in this game, he's one of the best in the league," Hedman said. "For him to come back like that after a scary (injury), to see him up and running again, it was fun to watch."

Stamkos showed off his trademark speed and shot, finding his familiar spot in the left circle on the power play. He got bumped and said he wasn't thinking much about the knee. He played the first, and last shift of the game, nearly scoring into an empty net. But the first-shift dish stole the show.

"That play showed right away that he's ready to go," said wing Ryan Callahan. "And he's back."

It doesn't sound like Stamkos is worried that he won't get back to the form that had him playing the best hockey of his life early last season.

"Listen, I snapped my leg in half (in 2013-14) and came back and was playing the best hockey of my career," Stamkos said. "So this is another hurdle. I'm confident that when you put in the work, you're going to find ways."

And Stamkos found a way Friday.

STRALMAN BACK: Defenseman Anton Stralman participated in his first practice of training camp after getting cleared for contact.

"A good start," he said.

Stralman is confident he'll be ready for the season opener against the Panthers. He said an old injury was reaggravated during an informal practice in Nashville a few weeks ago. Stralman wondered at the end of last season if the issue needed surgery, but it didn't. "It's kind of been an ongoing issue for a long time," Stralman said. "Just got a little overdone in Nashville.

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GAME DETAILS: Goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy was stellar in his first exhibition action, making several point-blank stops. He made 29 saves in an effort coach Jon Cooper called "exceptional." … Kucherov scored a power-play goal on a 5-on-3. … Brayden Point played wing again, jelling well with Stamkos and Kucherov. … Callahan, in his first game since a February followup hip procedure, looked like his old self, throwing checks and blocking shots on the penalty kill, plus getting a highlight-reel assist. "I didn't think about my hip at all," he said. … Defenseman Mikhail Sergachev played in his second straight game and looked solid overall. … Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Chris Kunitz and Alex Killorn made exhibition debuts.

NUTS AND BOLTS: Center Matt Peca played in his third straight exhibition, a sign he's getting the coaches' attention as he vies for a roster spot. He's making a strong case. "A smart, skilled centerman that works really hard," assistant coach Todd Richards said. "As a coach, he's a guy you don't have to worry too much about." … Forward Mathieu Joseph showed off his speed in his exhibition debut. … Gourde took Jonathan Drouin's spot on the side wall on the power play. … Defenseman Ben Thomas paired with Hedman was very active. … There was a classy tribute video on the JumboTron in the first period for former Lightning forward Brian Boyle, who was recently diagnosed with cancer. It ended with, "You've got this, Boyler."


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