Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos has been making small, steady steps in his rehab from surgery to repair a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee.
On Friday, Stamkos took another.
The Lightning captain joined his teammates for his first full skate since suffering the injury. After the practice session, Stamkos sat down at his locker room stall and fielded questions from reporters for the first time.
"It's progressed well," Stamkos answered when asked where he's at in the recovery process. "It's been a long process. It was four to six months with four months really kind of out of the question from the beginning, so we've passed that now. The first full skate today so it was nice to get out there with the guys and participate fully. A lot of hard work behind the scenes just to get to this point so continue to do the same.
Video: Stamkos on returning to team practice
"It's encouraging, and hopefully, the guys can continue to play well. That's helped in the process too, just being around this group that has put a last quarter of the season together that a lot of people counted us out to be in the mix has definitely helped with the process, as well."
Stamkos wore a grey jersey on Friday along with a number of forwards for the Bolts, signifying he's able to take contact. But Stamkos wasn't ready to set a date for his return to the lineup and said he won't come back until he feels 100 percent.
"Obviously, that's not the case yet and that's in all honesty," he said. "I can't pick a date because I may not feel 100 percent on that date. I've gone through stuff like this before. You start setting dates, that's when sometimes you set unrealistic goals.
"When I feel 100 percent, I'll be back playing. Obviously, I'd like that to be sooner rather than later, but that's the way these injuries go."
Lightning head coach Jon Cooper also cautioned against expecting Stamkos to return in the near future. Cooper reiterated the team won't rush him back until he's fully ready to go.
"Pump the brakes a little bit, the reason he was in the full team skate is because we didn't have enough players to field a team for a skate," Cooper said. "It was good to see him out there and try and get some timing back and stuff like that. By no means does this sit here and say his return is imminent."
Stamkos was injured on November 15 in a game against the Detroit Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena on an innocuous-looking play that wouldn't seem to suggest a major injury. Stamkos said, at first, he thought the injury was minor but was hit with the severity once he saw the MRI results the following day in Tampa. A day later, he was having surgery in Vail, Colorado.
"You just feel something and you think, okay, it's going to release or unclick or whatever that feeling that you have is," he said. "It wasn't until you get the MRI and you hear you're going to be done for a while, you need major surgery to fix it. It was frustrating. Obviously, a lot of emotions going through your head, especially with the expectations we had as a team coming in this year and the expectations I had on myself, the way both the team and me personally got off to a good start, it's frustrating. You're in a little bit of a downward spiral for a couple of days and it happened so quick. The next day I was out in Vail having surgery. You get on with it quick and you start the rehab process and you go from there."
Stamkos was off to one of the hottest starts of his career before the injury, registering nine goals and 11 assists through 17 games.
"I mean, it seemed when I broke my leg too," Stamkos said, referring to his good play prior to breaking his leg during the 2013-14 season. "For whatever reason, those scenarios have happened a lot, of what could have been. But, that's life. Things like that happen. You get tested in a lot of different ways. For me, it was tough to have the injury, tough to watch the guys struggle for a bit and see the season unfold the way it has, but like I said before, it's encouraging the way things have gone lately and that's helped me in the process as well."
Video: Cooper on Stamkos' return to practice
In going through three major injuries over the last four season - the broken leg in 2013-14, the surgery to treat a blood clot near his right collarbone in 2015-16 and this season's meniscus tear - Stamkos said he'll know when his body's ready for a return to the lineup.
"When I came back from the broken leg, there's a curve that goes with coming back from something like that, the inflammation, the little bit of pain after, but it's, there shouldn't be any uncomfortable moments on the ice and some of that's mental too," he said. "I've been through this before, so I think I have good understanding of what my body needs to feel like in order for me to get back on the ice."
Stamkos said this injury has been the toughest "by far" of the three to recover from.
"I think mentally, you know what to expect," he said. "I think physically, this one's been the toughest just with the type of injury that it was. It was a grind a lot of days, especially when it happened. Hopefully, that's it, the string of bad luck is over, but you get over that quick, you start to rehab, you start to see the progression of it. From a physical standpoint, this one tested me for sure. That's why it's even satisfying to even get out here and practice with the guys. That's a good start."