TAMPA, Fla. -- Steven Stamkos entered the Tampa Bay Lightning locker room Thursday dripping with sweat and still catching his breath following another hard skate at the end of practice.
Waiting for him was a horde of media members surrounding his locker stall. It's become part of the routine for Stamkos during his recovery from April 4 surgery to remove a blood clot near his right collarbone
Stamkos still doesn't have the answer to the question everyone wants answered, which is whether he'll be able to return at some point during the Eastern Conference Final against the Pittsburgh Penguins. He put it at "95 percent" that he won't play in Game 4 on Friday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports). Which is better than zero but not that encouraging.
"It's still kind of that holding pattern," Stamkos said. "I'm going to continue to work hard and hope the guys keep winning."
That was easier to say when the Lightning were winning. After losing the last two games, the Lightning trail the Penguins 2-1 in the best-of-7 series and certainly would love to have their captain back.
He'd love to come back to try to help them too. He just doesn't know when or if that will happen.
"I'm hoping to, but there's still a real possibility that I may not play at all in the playoffs," Stamkos said. "It's tough when you have two different parts of the spectrum. It's either you're going to be able to play or it's just not safe to play. We still haven't come to that decision yet. It's going to take a lot of information gathering and a lot of different opinions and I don't know when that decision is going to be made for sure to either rule in or rule out."
Stamkos was expected to miss one to three months, so right now he's in that foggy middle ground between the minimum time out and the maximum. But waiting three months would mean Stamkos definitely wouldn't play again this season.
"If we weren't in the playoffs I would continue treatment for three months and we wouldn't have a story about it," Stamkos said. "There's no data on six weeks vs. three months or 1 1/2 months vs. three months. Is there really a big difference? No one's done that really before, so there could be no difference at all. But when you're talking about something with the severity that the surgery and procedure was, then you're going to err on the side of caution for the most part."
Stamkos, 26, reiterated that his health and safety remain the priority. At the same time, with the Lightning being outplayed by the Penguins for much of the series, Stamkos' competitive spirit and desire to help his team when it needs him most weigh heavy in his heart and mind.
"That's the toughest part," he said. "This is the time of year that you want to be playing, especially when you get this deep. You never know how many chances you're going to get in your career to get here, so obviously I want to be out there helping the guys. Especially when things aren't going quite as well as we'd like to. But I still have a lot of confidence in our group and I know that they have confidence in each other that with the amount of adversity we faced all season long, including these playoffs, we've found a way to defy the odds. So why not keep doing that?"
Stamkos said his teammates have been good about not asking him too much about his situation because, "They understand I get asked about it every day," by the media.
"If it's been a couple days they'll ask for updates or talk to our medical staff," he said. "But again, the answers I give you guys are the same answers I give them. It's just kind of the way it is right now. As frustrating as it is, I'll have to continue to work hard on the ice, whether it's after practice skating or in the gym pushing the sled. It's just whatever I've got to do to give myself that chance if the day comes. If not, at least I can say I was ready to play."
After practicing with the Lightning for more than three weeks, Stamkos said he believes he is ready to play if medically cleared, other than expecting to have "a little rust probably the first game." That part at least appears to be black and white.
As much as Stamkos has talked to doctors and done his research, everything else about the decision on when he might play again is gray at best.
"I don't think in this situation you're going to get a 100-percent green light or a 100-percent red light," Stamkos said. "That's just the way it is. It's just something that hasn't been studied and there hasn't been a lot of data on when it's safe to come back from something like this. So the more opinions you get, the more information you gather, then the more confusing it gets. That's just the way it is. But for me, I've always tried to just gather as much information with my family and my agents and friends, and obviously the team, and just put that all together.
"We don't have all that information right now so I can't say exactly when the decision is going to be made either way."