TAMPA — The return of Steven Stamkos seems all but imminent these days.
The injured Lightning all-star, who broke his right tibia on Nov. 11, took another step in that direction on Saturday, joining the team on the ice in a gold colored jersey indicating he has been cleared for light contact drills. Stamkos had been skating in a red no-contact since he started joining the team for practices and morning skates on Jan. 2.
The 23-year-old was cleared for light contact following his 10-week X-ray and consultation with team medial director Dr. Ira Guttentag on Thursday. Stamkos is still aiming to get back in the lineup prior to the Olympic break in order to be able to play for Canada at the Olympics.
“I would say we are trying to get into one of those two home games (Feb. 6 or Feb. 8) if everything continues to progress well and if we are keep going like we are,’’ Stamkos said.
Prior to taking the ice Saturday morning, Stamkos was working with assistant athletic trainer Mike Poirier off ice running some football drills which had Stamkos make sudden starts and stops as well as quick cuts to put some stress on the right leg. Stamkos took part in all the drills on the ice and did some light pushing with Marty St. Louis along the boards as well as practicing faceoffs against Tyler Johnson.
Despite all the signs, head coach Jon Cooper said it’s not time to get too excited about a possible return to the lineup for Stamkos, a two-time 50-goal scorer.
“He’s getting better but there’s still lots of things that have to go on,’’ Cooper said. “He is still a ways away from being cleared (for full contact), he hasn’t done any battling so it’s just the process that is slowly going on here. But in saying that, I think when you take the minimum/maximum of what the injury was he’s closer to coming in at the minimum time frame than at the maximum time frame, so obviously that’s good for all of us.’’
The next step in the process for Stamkos will be to engage in more battles along the wall, testing not only how the leg holds up, but also how Stamkos holds up mentally to those situations.
“We will have to see what kind of strides he takes here,’’ Cooper said. “Then there’s always the mental part of it because you can’t go into a corner being afraid to get hurt or hit or anything like that, so those are other hurdles that he will have to overcome here soon. ... We haven’t really had a lot of practice time so we haven’t had situations where we’ve had to put him through much battling. So we’ll see what happens on Monday, maybe we will have a little energetic skate and see how he can do during that one.’’
RW Richard Panik was sent down to Syracuse on Friday, which opens up a roster spot for a potential Stamkos return.
But the move was not made just for that purpose. Panik has played sparingly in the past month and Cooper said Panik is better served playing games in the American Hockey League instead of watching from the press box in the NHL.
“We just need to get him games and this is by no means a permanent thing, this is more of a situation of we have to get him some game time,’’ Cooper said. “Instead of sitting in the stands here for the next week why not go down there and play and kind of get your mojo back so when he does come back here he’s ready to play. That’s the whole point of the development system.’’
Nuts and Bolts
D J-P Cote and C Tom Pyatt are scheduled to be scratched. ... With veteran G J-S Giguere out with back spasms, Colorado coach Patrick Roy said the Avalanche will start 20-year-old Sami Aittokallio, who appeared in one game with Colorado earlier this season. ... G Ben Bishop is scheduled to start for Tampa Bay.