TAMPA — Last week, he went on his first Tampa Bay Lightning road trip since the November day in Boston when his season, and his team’s season, seemed lost.
But here are the Lightning, staying in the hunt — more than that, really, near the top of the Eastern Conference. Here is Steven Stamkos, on the ice, making progress, always that smile, back on the road with his brothers. So, the first trip, he gets to the jet center. Security wands him.
“That was pretty funny,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.
There’s the surgically inserted titanium rod in Steven Stamkos’ broken right tibia.
Then there’s the steel will that goes with it.
“The rod is in there and it’s stable,” said Stamkos, 23. “I’ve got age on my side. I’ve got motivation. ... Now you can kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
His teammates have made some light themselves. Heading into Saturday’s game with Carolina, the Lightning were 9-6-2 without their all-world sharpshooter. Naturally, scoring is down. The Bolts have been shut out four times in 18 games without Stamkos. But the defense has tightened, and goaltender Ben Bishop has been exceptional.
“We’re scrapping,” captain Marty St. Louis said.
And now it doesn’t seem as improbable that the Lightning could make a real season of this — No. 91’s progress has been remarkable. In Forum halls, people are smiling over Stamkos’ smile, moving from “if” he can make it back this season to “when.” It’s another kind of buzz.
Maybe it was the first news conference after the injury. In late November, Stamkos surfaced publicly two weeks after Boston. And he walked into the room. It was a regular revival tent: he’d thrown away those crutches. He hasn’t used them since, or a protective boot.
“It was big for me,” Stamkos said.
It was big for everyone.
He was on the ice a month after the operation. Who is this, Wolverine?
“We’re waiting for him to do flips down the hall,” Cooper said.
There’s still no timetable. A setback is always possible. But Stamkos’ brass rings are Olympic rings: playing for Canada in the Winter Games in Sochi in February. If that seems unrealistic, or risky, not to worry. Lightning GM Steve Yzerman also is executive director of Canada’s men’s team.
“His future is what matters,” Yzerman said. “We won’t take any chances.”
“I’m hoping (the Olympics) being out there is a good thing, motivation,” Stamkos said. “But I’m not going to rush back and be a liability for Tampa or for Canada.”
On Saturday morning, he was on the Forum ice before the Lightning’s pregame skate. He has been on the ice six times since his surgery, light skating, stick-handling, shooting one-timers. The real rehab is seven days a week, three to four hours a day.
“I’m not having any pain at all,” Stamkos said. “Obviously, we’re cautious with certain movements. We use the underwater treadmill up at the university, USF. We’re there two or three days a week. It’s great — low impact on the joints and the foot. We’re working out in the gym here, starting to do lower-body stuff ... some light body weights, some squats, holding maybe a 25-pound plate. Every two weeks we’ve been doing X-rays. Last week was the four-week X-ray. Things look great.
“Pushing off on that (right leg), full torque, we can’t. The bone isn’t completely healed. Any kind of torque (action) would obviously be a setback. I feel good, but I know I can’t push it too much.”
His teammates have pushed it just fine.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the way we’ve played,” Stamkos said. “It’s not just me. We’ve had a lot of significant injuries: Victor (Hedman), (Eric) Brewer, (Ryan) Malone. Those are world-class players. Guys have stepped up, Marty leading the way, Bish leading the way in goal. The young guys have gotten more ice time. They’re learning. They’re thriving. Coop has said it a bunch of times: We’re going to be a better team because of this.”
Every week the Lightning rack up points is one week closer to still being relevant if Stamkos should return. He might become the rough equivalent of added firepower a contender picks up at a trade deadline.
“It would be the best move I’ve made,” Yzerman said with a grin.
“I’d love to go to the Olympics,” Stamkos said. “But that’s the icing on the cake. The priority is to get back for this team. But you have to be goal-oriented. You have to be passionate. You have to be hungry and always want more.”
A man of steel, inside and out.