Judging by the captain’s practical words and sunken demeanour, don’t expect him to play another regular-season game year.
“It’s probably not looking that good. It’s been frustrating, obviously, whenever you have to deal with a major injury. I’ve been unfortunate the last couple years having dealt with a few too many,” Stamkos said Tuesday, ahead of the Lightning’s do-or-die tilt against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“When you see the light at the end of the tunnel, it’s nice. You put in a lot of hard work to be able to get back out there with your teammates.”
But there’s no light yet — tunnel, green or otherwise.
With just three games remaining, Tampa Bay needs to run the table just to keep its playoff hopes on a respirator.
Stamkos has been out since tearing the lateral meniscus in his right knee and undergoing surgery in mid-November.
The captain skated on his own Tuesday and has drawn energy and inspiration from teammates by joining them on road trips the past month, but he won’t dare rush game action.
“If it doesn’t feel right, you can’t expect to be able to go out there and do the things you can when you’re healthy. With a significant injury — which it was — you want to make sure things heal so you don’t have to go through it again,” Stamkos said.
“I want to be out there as much as anyone. I showed that last year coming back for Game 7 [of the Eastern Conference final after dealing with blood clots].”
Prior to his latest long-term injury, Stamkos paced his club — an early Stanley Cup favourite — with 20 points in 17 games.
He was given a five-month timeline for rehabilitation by his surgeon and says there have been no setbacks, but his progress has plateaued.
Flexion in his knee is limited. Scar tissue needs healing.
“With some of the injuries I’ve had, you know what it feels like when you’re ready to return and when you’re not ready. It’s been a long process,” Stamkos said. “We’re not quite there yet. It’s been tough.”
Despite a disappointing first half of 2016–17, which also included a long-term injury to forward Ryan Callahan and the dealing away of key players at the trade deadline, Tampa has won five of its past seven games to maintain its post-season dream.
“Give Johnson a lot of credit. He’s been trying to game it out. The Boston game [Tuesday], he ran into a couple tough situations. We need him feeling better than he was in Boston, or he won’t be able to go,” coach Jon Cooper said. “Conacher has a history of putting pucks in the net.”
If there is a glimmer of optimism, Stamkos will find it.
“We’ve seen guys trying to battle through things, and they don’t look right out there but they’re trying,” said the 27-year-old.
“No one gave up in that room. It was a long shot, but no one had that mindset. We went on a stretch where we’re still alive here. Win tonight, and we put some pressure on other teams to win out or get a point.
“If we keep winning, there’s a chance you can come back and play.”