BRANDON — Steven Stamkos is skating freely again. The smile is back. And through the Lightning’s first four games of the season, the captain’s presence on the ice is as noticeable as ever.
But to say Stamkos is all the way back from an injury-plagued 2020 would be an overstatement, and he’d be the first to tell you that.
Stamkos has a team-high six points — two goals and four assists — through the first four games of a season that has seen three of Tampa Bay’s games over the first 14 days called off because of opponents’ coronavirus outbreaks.
Though it’s a small sample size, Stamkos’ ice time has gradually increased every game, from 15:53 in the season opener to 21:44 against the Blue Jackets on Saturday. He is averaging 40 more seconds of ice time than he did last season.
These are promising signs for Stamkos, who had two core muscle surgeries last year. He had the first March 2, six days after what ended up being his last regular-season game. He then suffered a setback as he prepared to return for the postseason in August. And while memorable, his 2:47 of ice time in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup final ended with a torn muscle in his groin, ending his season and sending him to offseason surgery Oct. 7.
As expected, Stamkos was ready for training camp, and when he arrived, he said he felt the best he had in a long time physically. Then again, in his 13th year in the league and coming up on his 31st birthday Feb. 7, he knows maintaining his body is a bigger challenge than before.
“I wouldn’t go that far to say (this is) the best I’ve felt all time. Those days are long gone, I think,” Stamkos said Monday. “Definitely, (this is) the best I’ve felt in 12 months, for sure. The reality was that I hadn’t played a game in a long time besides the 2:47 in the final. (It’s) still a process, but I feel like I’m continuing to feel more comfortable and getting better and stronger as we progress with this thing.
“It’s not just get back and get into a game. It’s the progression of continuing to build on those things. There’s still a lot of protocols for me in terms of strengthening certain areas. A work in progress, but definitely feeling good.”
What most people don’t see on the ice is how much Stamkos worked to get back onto the ice over the past year.
“To see what he went through in the (postseason) bubble and how much work he had to put in and the sacrifice just to play that (2:47 in the Cup final), that’s why he’s the leader of this team, this franchise,” defenseman Luke Schenn said.
“You don’t just go through surgery, recover and that’s it, go on with your life,” said Schenn, 31, who is in his 13th season. “It’s day in, day out, a physical grind. You take care of the body a lot more than you have to when you’re younger. (Stamkos has) put in the work, and he’s flying out there. In practice, he looks great. He’s obviously gotten off to a good start this season for us.”
Entering camp, coach Jon Cooper said practice time was important for Stamkos because he hadn’t had much ice time over the past several months, so refamiliarizing himself with systems and teammates would be helpful. And while the Lightning haven’t played many games this season, Stamkos has emphasized that getting the extra practice time now is important for later in the season, when makeup dates will create a packed schedule.
“Now that we’ve missed some games, there isn’t going to be a lot of practice time this year,” Stamkos said. “You’re going to get into situations where we’re playing every other day pretty much. So we need to take advantage of that, whether it’s working on some of our structure, things that just need refreshers or special teams — obviously, they play a big, big key in games, too.”
And with Nikita Kucherov, the Lightning’s leading scorer each of the past five seasons, sidelined for at least the regular season because of hip surgery, Stamkos has slid onto the first line seamlessly with Brayden Point and Ondrej Palat. Playing on the first power-play unit, which is also without Kucherov, Stamkos has logged a team-high average 2:56 of ice time.
“To see ‘Stammer’ skate so freely and be out there with the guys smiling, it feels like the first four games, he’s kind of fit in, like he’s never lost a step,” forward Pat Maroon said. “It’s been fun to watch, especially for him. I know he wants to see results right away, and he has. He looks good out there. It’s good to see our captain look happy again and putting up numbers like he is and competing and just having fun.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.
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