Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, still rehabbing from surgery to repair a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee, was on the ice with the rest of his teammates at the start of Bolts' morning skate in preparation for their game tonight versus Carolina.
Stamkos has been practicing on his own for about two weeks now, but Wednesday was the first time the 27-year-old center joined his teammates for a skate. Stamkos didn't take part in line rushes and participated in about half of the morning skate before heading off the ice and into the locker room, his on-ice work for the day complete.
Video: FLA@TBLA: Stamkos buries one-timer in final seconds
But just the sight of the two-time Rocket Richard winner progressing steadily was enough to energize the Lightning.
"It's fun seeing him," Bolts center Tyler Johnson said. "We've seen him a little bit the last couple weeks now. It's always nice when you get guys back like that, especially Stammer. It's kind of just makes things a little more fun."
Stamkos hasn't played since going down in a game against the Red Wings in Detroit on November 15. He had nine goals and 11 assists in 17 games but has missed 44 games since.
The original diagnosis was Stamkos would miss approximately four months, which would put him back in the lineup in mid-March. With Stamkos continuing to progress at a steady pace, that timeline doesn't appear too unrealistic.
"The next step for him was to get into non-contact drills with the team," Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman said on Monday. "He's progressing well. Everything about the rehab is moving along very well. There's no complications. He feels good. It's just allowing the injury to heal and getting his conditioning back and that will take time. I don't have an exact timeline for all this but the next step was to go from light skating on his own to getting involved with the team on the ice in non contact."
Video: NYI@TBL: Stamkos finishes snap shot for PPG
That step was reached on Wednesday.
"Everyone knows what he brings to the table, and he's one of the best players in this league," Tampa Bay defenseman Victor Hedman said. "He was on fire before he got hurt. Let's see when he comes back, he's obviously going to get us really pumped up, and I'm pretty sure he's happy to be back on the ice and skating with the guys. He's been great through this process once again and always positive attitude in the locker room and around the guys. It's tough to go through that for a third time in his career with a long-term injury, but he's been handling it good. He's progressing well and he's out there skating with us. It's always fun to see him out there and getting things going."