TAMPA, Fla. - Steven Stamkos is serving as an inspiration for the Tampa Bay Lightning as the defending Eastern Conference champions attempt to make a deep playoff run without him.
The team's captain and leading scorer was back on the ice with teammates Tuesday, participating in shooting and skating drills for the first time since undergoing surgery for a blood clot discovered near his right collarbone this month.
Stamkos and coach Jon Cooper, however, stressed the two-time Maurice Richard Trophy winner is not anywhere close to being ready to face the New York Islanders in a second-round series that begins Wednesday night.
"Nothing's changed from the original timeline," said Stamkos, who wore a red non-contact sweater during an hour-long practice at Amalie Arena.
"Naturally we all want him back, but it's not taking away from the task at hand," Cooper said. "We just went through a series without him, and we're fully expecting to go through another series without him."
When Stamkos underwent surgery April 4 to treat a type of Vascular Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, the Lightning said the 26-year-old would be sidelined one to three months.
He's maintained a relatively low profile since being released from the hospital, rehabbing and supporting teammates but careful to not draw attention to himself during Tampa Bay's first-round series win over the Detroit Red Wings. The Islanders advanced in six games against the Florida Panthers.
"It's kind of a fine line. ... You definitely don't want to be a distraction in the playoffs," Stamkos said in his first public comments since surgery. "I've tried to be there, obviously, for games and practices and to interact with the guys. That's never going to change."
Teammates were happy to see him back on the ice, and being out there lifted Stamkos' spirits, too.
"That was fun, but it's really just a waiting game now. Obviously you can't rush back into things of this magnitude. I'd say nothing's changed in that regard," Stamkos said.
"I feel great. That's kind of the tough part for me. Feeling physically ready to play almost, but obviously with this type of injury and the blood thinners and stuff like that, you have to take your time. ... Any contact, any bruising, anything like that can lead to complications," he added. "We have to be careful in that regard, even on the ice in practice."
Stamkos said when he'll be ready to come off blood thinners is the "million dollar question."
For now, the Lightning are excited to have him around as much as possible.
"It makes everybody feel better," the coach said. "There's just the uncertainty of when he can come back. But every step he takes to get closer back with our team, for sure it's motivating."
Things to know about the Islanders and Lightning:
STOP THE PUCK: Goalie play will be one of the keys to the series. The Islanders' Thomas Greiss gave up just 13 goals on 234 shots in the first round for a 1.79 goals-against average and a .944 save-percentage. Bishop faced 160 shots against the Red Wings, allowing eight goals in five games for a 1.61 GAA and .950 save percentage.
SLOWING TAVARES: One of more intriguing matchups in the series figures to feature Islanders star John Tavares and Tampa Bay defenceman Victor Hedman, the first two players selected in the 2009 draft. Tavares had five goals and four assists in the first round. "He's a world-class player, one of the best players in the league," Hedman said. Tavares respect's Hedman's game, too. "''He's got such great physical abilities, a high hockey IQ, so every time we've played against him it's a great challenge," Tavares said. "He had a great playoff last year, really put that D corps on his shoulder in many ways and was huge for their run last year."
STEPPING UP: With Stamkos out, Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson and Alex Killorn have stepped up offensively for the Lightning, coming for 10 goals and 10 assists. The rest of the team combined for two goals.
ADVAVTAGE?: While the Lightning had nearly a week's rest after eliminating Detroit, the Islanders have a quick turnaround after advancing with a double overtime victory Sunday night. "You can look at it both those ways. Their team's had a lot of time to rest, work on some things," Tavares said. "And we're obviously coming off an emotional, intense couple of games and want to carry over that intensity. So it can really go either way."
WE RESPECT 'EM: The team met three times during the regular season with the Islanders winning twice. Tampa Bay lost four of five games to Florida, so coach Jon Cooper understandably is impressed with New York's first-round victory. "We know what to expect," Cooper said. "And just the mere fact that they knocked out one heck of a Florida team shows how well they're playing right now."