TAMPA — After almost four months away from the game, Steven Stamkos is hardly back to form after three games.
Though returning to the ice and getting back into games brought Stamkos back into his natural environment, the game hardly feels completely natural at this point.
“For me, a lot of it is still a mental thing going into certain situations, certain areas on the ice where before the injury I’m already thinking of my next play before the puck comes,’’ said Stamkos, who broke the tibia in his lower right leg Nov. 11 in Boston.
“Now you are thinking of what you have to do to brace yourself for contact and then make the play. And whether that’s half a second or a second, that’s a big difference in this league. So, I’m trying to get over that.’’
In each of his first three games back from injury, Stamkos logged more than 20 minutes in his familiar top-line role. But he did not score a goal as the Lightning opened a six-game homestand with three losses, two in shootouts.
The lack of scoring shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Finding his timing and regaining his scoring touch will take a bit of time, as Tampa Bay hosts Florida tonight.
“You have to be realistic, I guess. As much as I wanted to come back and not miss a beat, it is tough,’’ said Stamkos, who had 14 goals and 23 points in 17 games to lead the league in both categories before the injury.
“I’ve had a couple of chances, and if they go in you start to feel a little bit better about yourself and your game, but I don’t quite feel like I’m there yet. But it has been three games. You have to put things in perspective.’’
For coach Jon Cooper, judging Stamkos after three games is not based on point production, but on the other components of his game.
“I’m not so sure what everybody expected, but if they expected him to come in and have five goals by now, that’s a little far-reaching, I believe,” Cooper said. “But as I’ve said, he’s getting better every game and at some point here I think the dam is going to break for him.’’
In a bit of a shakeup, Cooper juggled the lines during Wednesday’s practice. Though he did not commit to what the lines will be for tonight’s game, Stamkos could get some looks on the right wing with Tyler Johnson at center and Alex Killorn on left wing. Stamkos has taken occasional shifts on the wing in the past and also played the position at the World Championships for Canada.
“We may mix up a few things with the lines trying to get some more offense here,’’ Stamkos said. “But for me, it’s just focusing on keeping this (leg) strong and healthy so I can keep progressing every game.’’
Johnson hopes to help with that.
“He has been very dangerous every time he’s on the ice, getting his shots off,” said Johnson, who scored his 20th goal of the season Monday. “I’m excited to play with Stammer, if that’s the case, and we’ll see what we can do. I’m just trying to get the puck to him and let him work his magic.’’