TAMPA -- Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos wants to say he's back, that his surgically repaired right knee is healthy and ready to do its job so he can be an elite player again.
He can't say it. Not yet at least. Not without more proof.
"At the beginning of camp, coming into camp, it felt better than I was expecting it to," Stamkos said after practice Monday. "I played four preseason games, had no issues, felt better than I was expecting it to. Hopefully that trend continues and I can come back and do the best that I can to hopefully get back to that level where I was playing some good hockey before the injury."
Unfortunately for Stamkos, he's using to hoping.
Video: Stamkos provides updates on injury, upcoming season
The captain has missed 131 games the past four seasons, including the final 65 last season and 16 in the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs, because of three major injuries.
Stamkos broke his leg in a game at the Boston Bruins on Nov. 11, 2013, and missed the next 45 games. He missed the final five games of the 2015-16 regular season and the first 16 games of Tampa Bay's 17 games in the playoffs because he needed surgery to repair a blood clot near his right collarbone.
He will play in his first game that counts in about 11 months Friday, when the Lightning open the season against the Florida Panthers at Amalie Arena (7:30 p.m. ET; SUN, FS-F, NHL.TV). The last one he played in was Nov. 15, when he fell awkwardly against the boards in the first period during a road game against the Detroit Red Wings, hobbled off the ice, had an MRI and found out he needed surgery to repair a torn lateral meniscus. He had surgery two days later.
"Going back to minor hockey, junior, the first five years in the NHL, I never missed a game due to injury," Stamkos said. "Hopefully it's done and over with."
There's that word again: hopefully.
Stamkos would like to stop using it.
Video: Steven Stamkos lands at No. 20 on the list
"I found a way to come back and work extremely hard after I broke my leg to get back to the player I know I can be," Stamkos said. "With the blood clot issue, I found a way to come back and at the beginning of last year be at a level that I thought was some of the best hockey of my career. It may take some time. It might not. I mean, the only way you're going to find out is getting into those regular-season games and putting yourself through that test."
Stamkos said he passed the preseason test because his knee came out feeling as good as it felt before the injury. It has even made him think back to the end of last season, when he was practicing with the Lightning and contemplating a return before the end of the regular season.
He laughs about that now.
"I probably wasn't even close [to being able to play], to be honest," Stamkos said. "Although it was tough not to make the playoffs, for selfish reasons it was probably best for me healthwise to have that long summer to train and get ready."
Stamkos was happy to play four preseason games, including three in five days, because it was the first time he was taking on real contact, getting hit, truly testing his knee.
That's a big step to take.
"You look in the history of people that have had injuries like that, regardless if it's hockey or football or baseball, I think it takes a little bit of time for guys to not only physically come back but mentally come back," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "What I've liked about the preseason is he's been more aggressive in every game he's played. I think it's been a little bit more of a wait and see thing with him and how everything feels, and every time he steps on the ice it gets better and better."
Video: TBL@DET: Stamkos leaves game with apparent injury
He's taking it up a level starting Friday, but Stamkos doesn't expect to be at his very best right away. If returning from the previous two injuries taught him anything it's to lower his expectations at the start.
Stamkos still has to get his timing back. He has to return to playing with his instincts and not thinking about when to make a play, when to make a pass in a tight space, when to wind up and release a one-timer.
He was off on his one-timers in preseason. He didn't score on the 14 shots he did get on goal.
"That takes reps," Cooper said.
Stamkos gets in a lot. He works on his shot, his release, his timing before and after each practice.
"You can see he's getting back," said Lightning right wing Nikita Kucherov, who will start the season on a line with Stamkos and Vladislav Namestnikov. "Every practice, every game, you can see the confidence he gets every time he gets the puck."
Like hoping, though, Stamkos is used to this part of the recovery process too. He needed the preseason to feel ready. Now he needs to get back into the flow of the regular season, back into the games that count, to feel like he's back to being the player he knows he can be.
Maybe then he'll be able to confidently say he's back.
"All I've done each and every time I've been injured is put in the work," Stamkos said. "I just want to continue to get better and hopefully stay healthy."