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Lightning's Stamkos keeps sights set on Olympics

by Patrick Williams

WINNIPEG -- Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos faces one final obstacle in his bid to represent Canada at the Sochi Olympics in February.

The 23-year-old center broke his right tibia after crashing into the net in a road game against the Boston Bruins on Nov. 11, and the injury has cost him 25 games. Despite the injury, Hockey Canada named Stamkos to their Olympic team for the first time. Stamkos has scored 14 goals in his 17 games with the Lightning this season and would be a first-time Olympian.

"You're on the team right now," Stamkos said after participating in the Lightning's optional morning skate before their game against the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday. "That really doesn't mean anything if I can't get back and play. This is a dream come true to be named to the team, but I still have a hard work ahead of me in order to make sure I can play."

Stamkos continues the recovery process, but he accompanied his teammates on their four-game trip through western Canada. Finding a balance between pursuing an ambitious rehabilitation schedule without jeopardizing his recovery has been a challenge for Stamkos.

"You can deal with pain," Stamkos said. "I think it's, mentally, not trying to push it too hard. Your body is pretty good at letting you know which movements you can and can't try.

"It's all about not having a setback right now," Stamkos continued. "Could I go out and there and push myself and be able to do some things? Probably, but I don't want that setback. You want to push yourself, you want to go out there, but at the same time you have to be smart."

Stamkos said his stick-handling and shooting are not issues and he is focusing on his skating.

Lightning coach Jon Cooper would like to see Stamkos represent Canada in February, but admits his return is not imminent.

"We love that he is with on the road with us and skates out here, but we look at the lineup every night, and he is still a little time away," Cooper said. "I'm glad that he got named to the team. He is extremely deserving.

"I'm certain that this is a big dream of his to play [in the Olympics], but he knows that the Tampa Bay Lightning and his health are extremely important as well," said Cooper, whose Lightning sit fourth in the Eastern Conference and are attempting to end a two-season playoff drought.

If and when Stamkos goes to Sochi, he would prefer to play for the Lightning first. Tampa Bay plays four games in the week before the NHL's Olympic break.

"I'd like to," Stamkos said. "That's probably not going to be my call. If I don't play any games, I'm still going to try to lobby to go over there and play [for Canada]. I want to go no matter what, but that [is] something that been discussed already and obviously will [be discussed] once we get down to crunch time. My goal is to come back and play before [the Olympics]. That's what I want."

While the Lightning will face a busy March schedule and a competitive race to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, should Stamkos return to health Cooper said he will have no objections to him representing Canada.

"If he is 100 percent healthy, and he is going to cut his teeth [playing], and every doctor in the world says it's OK for him to play, I see no reason why he shouldn't play," Cooper said.

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