Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos will take the ice in a live game situation for the first time in over 10 months when the Bolts host the Nashville Predators tonight at AMALIE Arena.
Stamkos was forced to miss the majority of the 2016-17 season after suffering a lateral meniscus tear to his right knee on November 15, 2016 at Detroit. The superstar center was targeting a return late in the season as the Lightning made a push for the playoffs, but he wasn't able to get back out on the ice and the Bolts missed the postseason for the first time since 2013.
Stamkos did not play in the Lightning's first two preseason games, a 2-1 loss versus Carolina on Tuesday and a 4-3 victory in Carolina a day later.
"Obviously, it's been a while since I've played in a game," Stamkos said following the Lightning's morning skate Friday. "I'm really anxious and excited to get this one going tonight. Training camp's gone extremely well. We've worked hard, look great. I feel even better than I thought I would coming in, so it's all been positive and this is another step in getting prepared for October 6."
Stamkos has maintained throughout training camp that he's not quite 100 percent yet but feels good, much better than he did at the end of last season. He says he's in a "much better place" mentally and physically than he was when the Bolts' previous season came to a close, and his body has responded well to a summer of continued rehabilitation and the start of training camp.
Video: Stamkos on Hurricane Irma and his health
But still, it's hard to know just how far he's come until being put in an actual game scenario.
That will come tonight.
"Unfortunately, this is a sport where it's very, very tough to duplicate game scenarios without playing in a game," Stamkos said. "So, tonight will be a good start. Again, it's not regular season. It's a little different, but I'm hoping to use these preseason games just like everyone else in this room, to get prepared and to get ready and get the timing back.
"So, that's why I'm anxious for tonight."
Stamkos isn't the only one inside the Lightning locker room anxious for the return of the team captain.
"I think everybody is and probably himself too, just being out for so long," Tampa Bay assistant coach Todd Ricahrds said. "Probably a little bit of nerves (for him) getting back into it, getting used to the timing and the speed. Ryan Callahan's in the same boat that he is. So, we'll get a chance to get both of those guys in the lineup tonight and, again, through camp here, as you start to get more NHL players in, the intensity, the speed starts to get amped up, and then when you get hit game one, it's another level. Getting those guys in the lineup is important for our group, and not just on the ice, but the importance of having those guys in the room, I think that's something we missed last year."
Stamkos said the main thing for him tonight is to get back to a place where he's reacting naturally to the play and not thinking about his body.
"When you get injuries, the tendency is the mind telling the body to protect that certain area that's injured," he said. "It's a natural reaction to an injury. Usually when you're over it is when you're not thinking about it, you're just going out there responding to the play, you're letting the game come to you. That's what I'm hoping for tonight. It's felt pretty good in the scrimmages and the battle drills, things like that. It hasn't been an issue. Again, we'll find out more tonight, and we'll let you know after the game."
Video: NYI@TBL: Stamkos finishes snap shot for PPG
Stamkos has had tough luck injury-wise over the past handful of seasons. There was the broken leg early in the 2013-14 season that forced him to miss 45 games. Following an injury-free year in 2014-15, he was again sidelined toward the end of the 2015-16 season after having surgery to treat a vascular thoracic outlet syndrome and missed the entire postseason.
Last season, Stamkos scored nine goals in his first 17 games before his latest setback.
He said the knee injury has been the most physically taxing of the three major injuries.
"Mentally, I've gone through some unfortunate injuries where I know what to expect and I know how to deal with that," he said. "That really hasn't been the issue. It's been more the physical rehab process and the time it takes for (the knee) injury to heal and to feel good and to continue to get better. It's been tough for sure, but it's part of the game. Unfortunately, we play a sport where injuries are a part, and you just hope to avoid them. I've had tough luck within the past four-year, five-year stretch, so hopefully it's over and done with and I continue to get back to what I love and that's being on the ice helping my teammates."