MONTREAL -- Steven Stamkos absorbed the most contact he's taken during his recovery from a broken right tibia at Tampa Bay Lightning practice on Friday.
The Canadian Olympic team member said after the hour-long skate that he's not quite ready to proclaim his return to NHL game action, but he's getting closer.
"I feel good. It was a good practice [Friday]," Stamkos said after the Lightning skated at Bell Centre. "I got to participate in all the drills, do a little light contact. It's still not where I want it to feel but it's definitely getting better and it's progressing. I don't feel I'm where I need to be in order to play in a game yet but it's getting there."
The contact element of Friday's practice was encouraging to Stamkos because he feels the mental element of being able to face game situations without fear of re-injuring his leg will be one of the more difficult hurdles he'll need to overcome before he returns to play.
"I was in the corners a little more and getting bumped around. By no means was it full contact," Stamkos said. "It is tough mentally as well, going in there knowing you're a little hesitant in certain areas. I've said it before, that's what you don't want. So I'm trying to overcome that and as you progress and take more contact in practice hopefully that goes away."
A decision on Stamkos' status with the Canadian Olympic team will need to be made before it departs for Sochi on Feb. 9. The Lightning play the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday, a game Stamkos will not play in, but there will be three games remaining prior to the Olympic break: at the Minnesota Wild on Tuesday, home against the Toronto Maple Leafs next Thursday and home against the Detroit Red Wings on Feb. 8.
Stamkos remains hopeful he will be able to play in at least one of those games but he will not rush into doing so just because of the looming Olympic deadline.
"You just have to listen to your body," he said. "We're talking a lot because of the Olympics and my goal is to be ready for those games, but your body doesn't lie. When you're doing certain movements and you feel pain, that's an indicator that maybe it's not quite ready. It has gotten better, there's less and less pain every time I get on the ice, but there is still a little discomfort.
"I'm hoping in the next week and a half or two weeks that it feels a lot better and I can do certain movements without having that pain, or at least with some pain that's manageable. Right now it's still a little sharp in certain areas."
Lightning coach Jon Cooper admitted his team, which has gone 19-13-5 without Stamkos, is probably "getting to a time where it's going to be nice to have him back." The simple fact that it is a possibility less than three months after Stamkos sustained the injury Nov. 11 is an incredible feat unto itself, whether he makes it to the Olympics or not, Cooper said.
"If you look at the medical report he is so far ahead what any medical doctor would say he should be right now," he said. "I think we should look at it that way instead of looking at it like if he's going to be ready for the Olympics. He's already been superhuman to get to where he is right now. I don't know if he'll be ready for the Olympics; we all hope he is. But the fact we're even having the conversation is pretty remarkable."
The pain Stamkos is experiencing comes from the area around the broken tibia and not the bone itself. He said the recovery of the fracture has gone extremely well and the bone couldn't be much more stable than it is now.
"The bone itself, the way that it's healed, if everything else felt good I could be playing," he said. "It's just having confidence in a lot of the soft-tissue stuff, ligaments, tendons, muscles that haven't moved in an explosive manner. That's really where the bulk of my discomfort is."
Stamkos likely will have another X-ray when the team returns to Tampa after the game Tuesday in Minnesota, but that only will serve to confirm that the bone remains strong. The actual decision on whether he can go to Sochi will come from Stamkos, and he will need to determine if the level of pain he is experiencing on the ice is tolerable.
"There's a deadline so questions are going to have to be answered," he said. "I'm going to have to make a decision if I'm ready enough to play at that level. I'll obviously have to talk with Steve [Yzerman, Canada executive director] and our medical staff here in Tampa.
"There obviously is going to be an answer next week and hopefully it's going to be a good one."