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A 'remarkable' return even though Lightning flash Steven Stamkos won't be full speed until next season

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports
Tampa Bay Lightning's Steven Stamkos (91) skates during an NHL hockey game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Tampa Bay Lightning in Pittsburgh, Saturday, March 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
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Tampa Bay Lightning's Steven Stamkos (91) skates during an NHL hockey game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Tampa Bay Lightning in Pittsburgh, Saturday, March 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Look at the numbers, and you’d never know that Steven Stamkos slammed into a goal post, that his right leg bent grotesquely, that a surgeon put a rod into his broken bone. You’d never know that he missed out on the Olympics, that one of his best friends demanded a trade, that one of the NHL’s top scorers left his right wing. You’d never know that – less than four months after surgery, in his first game back, in the first game after the Martin St-Louis deal, just in time for the stretch run – he had the ‘C’ sewn on his sweater, too.

Stamkos has gone through so much this season, and he’s still feeling some pain, still getting up to speed. He is not himself. He won’t be until next season, after a full summer of training. Yet in the 13 games since his return to the Tampa Bay Lightning, he has averaged more than 20 minutes of ice time and produced nine goals and 13 points, and he has started to embrace the role of captain. He is about to play in the playoffs for only the second time in his career.

“It’s remarkable what he’s done,” said coach Jon Cooper.

Stamkos is a remarkable player, obviously. He was the first overall pick in 2008. He has led the NHL in goals twice. At age 24, he has 231 goals and 422 points in 403 games. In his only previous playoff appearance, the Lightning went to the 2011 Eastern Conference final. In Game 7, he took a puck to the face and missed less than six minutes, returning with a thick red streak on the right side of his swollen nose and a full metal cage, only to suffer further as the Boston Bruins won, 1-0. He said later that he learned a lot from that run – what it takes to win – and became more determined to be a complete centerman, not just an elite scorer.

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He felt he had reached a new level through the first 17 games this season. Not only did he have 14 goals and 23 points – tied for the league lead in both categories – he was playing well defensively, and the team was winning. The Lightning, the second-worst team in the East last season, was No. 1 in the conference. Had he stayed healthy, he could have played on Sidney Crosby’s right wing in Sochi and competed with the Pittsburgh Penguins captain for the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player.

“Before the injury, anyways, I thought that was probably the best hockey I’ve played at both ends of the rink…being confident, being counted on in all situations, being out there on the penalty kill and the last minute of games,” Stamkos said. “Obviously, it was tough to have an injury happen at that time.”

Stamkos slammed into the goalpost Nov. 11 in Boston. He had surgery the next day. He recovered quickly, pushed by the possibility of playing in Sochi. Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman was Team Canada’s executive director, and he put Stamkos on the roster to hold the spot in case Stamkos could play. But the Olympics were just too much, too soon.

Ironically, it was St-Louis who replaced Stamkos on the roster. St-Louis was already upset with Yzerman for not naming him to Team Canada initially, and he’d had a house in Connecticut and his eyes on the New York Rangers for years. He pushed for a trade, and Yzerman accommodated him at the deadline March 5.

Stamkos returned March 6.

So after dealing with the interruption of his best season, rehabbing a broken leg, watching the Lightning stay afloat without him and watching Team Canada win gold without him, he had to say goodbye to St-Louis and take over the captaincy while jumping into action at an intense time of year.

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Vincent Lecavalier is gone. He was bought out last summer and signed with the Philadelphia Flyers. Now St-Louis is gone, too. Stamkos used to defer to them when he was younger, but he has no one to whom to defer anymore and is taking more initiative. One little example: Cooper used to call together the players during TV timeouts. Stamkos is suddenly doing it on his own.

“He leaves an assistant captain, part of the leadership group,” Cooper said. “He comes back, and he is the leadership group. That’s a lot of different dynamics for a young guy to grasp.”

Cooper said Stamkos held the team together. Neither Cooper nor Stamkos said this, but can you imagine if Stamkos sulked or even just tried to ease himself in under the circumstances? How would that have looked? How would his teammates have reacted? They lost essentially a goal a game when they lost him, but they stayed in a playoff spot without him and needed him without St-Louis.

“It was a little different situation than I expected, but there’s a lot of good veteran guys and leaders on this team so that it’s not too difficult,” Stamkos said. “You just have to be aware of your surroundings at all times. Guys are always watching you as the captain. You want to set a good example.”

Stamkos doesn’t have his usual explosiveness in his first three strides, and he coasts in the defensive zone instead of stopping hard. Cooper said the next step for Stamkos is to play the 200-foot game he was playing before, and that is going to take time. He called this Stamkos’ “training camp.” Stamkos said the leg still felt weak and sore on bad days, and he had to overcome a mental hurdle, going to tough areas of the ice – around the net, near the boards.

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“It’s trusting the fact that everything’s intact and strong,” Stamkos said. “I feel better and better each time I get on the ice and get engaged physically. Hopefully it keeps progressing.”

But it’s all relative.

“He’s got that sixth gear,” said winger Teddy Purcell. “He doesn’t really have that seventh gear that he usually has, but most people only have five. He puts a lot of pressure on himself to be at his best all the time, so I think that’s frustrating for him, but he knows, as we do, it’s important to have him back no matter how he feels.”

Stamkos can still shoot the puck, and he’s getting his timing back. He’s still as lethal as ever when he can station himself in the left circle on the power play. Though he lost his chance at Olympic gold, the Hart, the Rocket Richard and the Art Ross this season, he’s headed back to the playoffs, and this is his team now. As he sat at his stall the other day, he crossed his arms and talked about “the type of hockey you need to play down the stretch,” about “what to expect.” He looked forward. He sounded experienced.

“It just goes to show how mature he is,” Purcell said. “He’s not letting it get to him. Even when he’s not 100 percent, he’s still finding ways to get the job done.”

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