TAMPA — In 2011, in his first shift in his first game in his first NHL playoff season, Lightning center Steven Stamkos found himself airborne, horizontal, as Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik crunched him into the boards. Welcome.
In his last game in that playoff season, a Game 7 loss in the Eastern Conference finals, Stamkos' nose was shattered by a Boston shot. He returned wearing a cage, blood still dripping from his nose. But the 21-year-old finished what he started.
He's back. Steven Stamkos, 24, is back in the playoffs, wiser for his up-down education the first time around, grateful for another chance, particularly because, like his team, he seemed a longer than long shot on Nov. 11, when he broke his right leg.
But the Lightning banded together and overcame. And Stamkos was relentless in his comeback. The night he returned to the lineup, he returned a captain. It was still bittersweet.
His friend and teammate, Marty St. Louis, was gone, traded to New York.
What a season.
“It was like ... someone is testing me,” Stamkos said with a smile.
The new captain takes the Bolts into these playoffs tonight at the Forum, Game 1 against Montreal.
It's his team.
It's another test.
“Maybe a little bit,” Stamkos said. “You're captain. You're the leader of a team that's going to the Stanley Cup playoffs. It's a challenge, but it's fun, it's exciting. For me, everything that's happened this year, to get a chance to come back and play, is an unbelievable feeling. But to get a chance to be in the playoffs, and hopefully lead this team, that's a challenge. For me, you take that challenge personally, but you realize we have a great bunch of guys here.”
He missed 45 games. He seemed headed for an MVP season — 14 goals in the first 17 games — when he went down. He was a lock for the Canadian Olympic team. All that disappeared. Then Marty was traded. Stamkos returned to a team that rallied without him and rallied some himself. He scored 11 goals down the stretch.
“Sometimes you take things for granted,” Stamkos said. “I'd never missed a game, really, due to injury. You take a step back and realize how fortunate you are to play in this league and how hard it is. Coming back, the rehab, that tested me. Looking back on it, I was better for it.”
But these are the playoffs. These games are different. Stamkos found out how different in 2011. His play was uneven in his first Stanley Cup postseason. He came away with six goals and 13 points in 18 games and an appreciation for the experience, all of it, from Orpik's welcoming hit to his smashed nose and everything in between.
Stamkos said, “You can watch all the games you want, on TV, on film. Until you actually play in an NHL playoff game, you don't know what it feels like. For me to go through that experience, go through that run, to realize the sacrifice you have to make, you're just that much more comfortable the second time around.”
Being captain, that's a learning experience, too.
“I think the thing that I've kind of learned the most is that eyes are on you all the time in every situation.” Stamkos said. “And that's not just being on the ice. It's being in the room, being in the gym, in practice. For me, the thing I've had to learn on the fly is just keeping the emotions in check. When things aren't going right and you're frustrated, you can't show it, because guys feed off it.”
Adjusting to the captaincy didn't concern Stamkos as much as losing St. Louis.
“I wasn't too worried about the captain thing, but you have questions creep into your head,” Stamkos said. “I played with Marty for so long, and I know I've had some success when he's been out or played on different lines, but this was you don't know for sure … there are questions that creep in. Can you still produce? Can you still be a leader?”
It's playoff time.
A lot of eyes are on the captain.
Another test in a season filled with them.