TAMPA -- Never has Steven Stamkos felt so bad to feel so good.
He isn't recovering from a broken leg, like he was a couple of years ago. He's recovering from a type of vascular thoracic outlet syndrome called effort thrombosis - in other words, a blood clot.
He isn't in a cast. He isn't in pain. He took the ice with the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena on Tuesday for the first time since his diagnosis, and he said with five to seven days to regain his strength, he probably would feel ready to go again.
But he's on blood thinners and doesn't know how long he will have to be on them, and cannot risk a cut or bruise. Although the Lightning originally said he should be able to return in one to three months and the one-month anniversary of his surgery is May 4, a little more than a week away, coach Jon Cooper said they fully expect to play their Eastern Conference Second Round series against the New York Islanders without their captain.
So while his teammates wore white and black and blue at practice, preparing for Game 1 on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports), Stamkos wore a red non-contact sweater. While they went through drills at one end of the ice, he took half-speed one-timers with an assistant coach at the other end. While they worked on the power play, he chatted with Cooper or just watched. While he called it "fantastic," he also called it "frustrating."
Video: Steven Stamkos discusses his recovery
He was one of the boys again at the best time of year for a hockey player, but he wasn't.
"That's the tough part, is feeling physically ready to play but not being able to," Stamkos said. "Usually … With my leg before, you know. Your body tells you, you can't play. When your body is telling you you feel ready to at least get back into practice and get back into the flow of things and you've got to take a step back, I think that's the toughest part."
There never is a good time to sustain a blood clot, but this has been particularly brutal.
Stamkos is a pending unrestricted free agent. Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman declared he would not trade Stamkos before the NHL Trade Deadline to put speculation to rest and allow everyone to concentrate on the stretch run and the Stanley Cup Playoffs. This is a team that went to the Stanley Cup Final last season, and every ounce of energy was supposed to go into this run, whether it turned out to be Stamkos' last with the Lightning or not.
Video: FLA@TBL: Stamkos puts a rebound top-shelf for a PPG
The plan was working. Stamkos was on a roll, scoring 14 goals in 21 games, when he felt funny after a postgame workout March 31. His right arm was heavy. He noticed some swelling. He recognized he had the same symptoms of teammate Andrei Vasilevskiy, who had sustained a blood clot before the season.
"Obviously talked to the doctors," Stamkos said. "We made sure we got on it right away. Pretty crazy to have two of those on the same team in one year."
Stamkos had a two-hour surgery April 4 to remove a clot near his right collarbone. Asked if he had a second procedure or experienced complications, he said: "It just took a little longer than maybe we first expected, but we're on track now."
He has graduated from riding the bike, running on the treadmill and skating on his own to skating with the team. But he had to watch the Lightning defeat the Detroit Red Wings in the first round without him, and it's impossible to say when he will return to their lineup - or even if he ever will again, considering the playoffs and free agency.
Video: Lightning/Islanders Series Preview
As much as he wants to come back and is trying to, he said: "It's sometimes tempering those expectations because of the severity of what we're dealing with here."
Stamkos went to the team dinner before the playoffs, and he was around the dressing room for games and practices in the first round. But when the Lightning have worked on technical things, he has kept his distance.
"I don't want to be in the way of that," he said. "They have to go out there and focus. The last thing they need is a distraction. I've tried to walk that line."
It's sad to hear Stamkos calling himself a "distraction," but maybe not as sad as this:
"I thought I was playing my best hockey down the stretch," he said. "I was excited about this playoff run and what we could do with ultimately pretty much the same team as last year. We've seen what they could do in Round 1, and I've been just as excited as ever to be a part of that and go through it with them. But there's nothing like playing in these situations. This is what you work hard for all summer, all year, and that's what was really disappointing for me when I got that news."
Did you catch that? He called the Lightning "they" in the same sentence in which he said he was excited to be a part of this. That's not a Freudian slip regarding free agency. That's a captain who can't lead his team on the ice, an athlete who can't compete for the championship to which he had dedicated so much of his life, even though he feels like he could.
"As a hockey player," Stamkos said, "I just want to go out there and play."