TAMPA -- Next captain up.
This one isn't leaving.
It's his team. And it's so right.
Steven Stamkos returned to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night, his leg healed, if not his heart. It was his first time back in four months, 45 games, and he came back a captain against the Buffalo Sabres at the Forum, to thunderous applause, easing some pain even for all the people in 26 jerseys.
But it was bittersweet.
Stamkos' wing man, friend and mentor wasn't around.
Former Lightning captain Marty St. Louis played his first game for the New York Rangers on Wednesday night.
Former Rangers captain Ryan Callahan played his first game for the Lightning on Thursday night.
But Steven Stamkos is back. He's captain, the 10th in Lightning history. And it's so right.
When Vinny Lecavalier was Lightning captain, you knew Stamkos would get his turn. When St. Louis became captain before this season, you knew Stamkos was next in line.
Now there's no line.
“Of course I want to be the leader on this team,” Stamkos said Thursday morning. “I was able to learn from those two guys, especially Marty. From Day One he's been my mentor. He's a close friend. He's taught me so much about being a true pro in this game and a great leader. I can take from other veteran guys in this room as I go along, but take things I learned from Marty and instill them in this room.”
There was no wasting time.
Stamkos appeared on the ice for pregame warm-ups Thursday with an 'A' on his sweater for alternate captain.
No one was fooled.
It didn't last. When the Bolts hit the ice for the game, Stamkos lagged behind. Only when the starting lineups were announced, only when the starting center was announced, did Stamkos appear, wearing the 'C' and bathed in spotlights.
His teammates banged their sticks against the boards.
It's the perrefect transition.
The captain was in the house, and the house rocked.
The Lightning need everything Stamkos brings, and fast.
Everything Ryan Callahan has, too.
The Bolts had lost seven of 10 heading into Thursday. A lot of these remarkable kids the Lightning brought up are hitting the wall. The defense is slipping. And St. Louis is gone. Stamkos will have to carry his load and more. There's a lot riding on these final 20 games. I can't see them making an extended playoff run, but just getting there, not folding, matters all the more after all the Marty drama.
Stamkos was cleared to play Wednesday even as St. Louis was cleared to leave.
“He is kind of missing what has been his big brother for some time,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said Thursday morning. But Cooper added, “that kid has had a lot of success with and without Marty, so that part is quite frankly the least of my worries.”
“My expectations for myself right now are to come back and play the way I was playing before, but is that realistic?” Stamkos said. “I've never had to go through a prolonged injury like this where I didn't play for 45 games. From what I hear, it does take a while to get back into the swing of things. But I'm going to do my best to have that period be as short as possible.”
The leg is healed. Marty is gone. The trade deadline has passed. Ryan Callahan is here with his grinding game, no prisoners taken, ever.
“On the power play, he'll slide face first trying to block a shot,” Stamkos said. “He gets under guys' skins because of his passion and his work ethic. You can never have enough of those guys on your team.
Wouldn't it be weird if Marty St. Louis actually did the Lightning a favor by forcing this trade, bringing the substantially younger Callahan and high draft picks here, the kind of value Bolts GM Steve Yzerman wouldn't have been able to get after the season, when Callahan turned free agent?
Think about that.
Or this ...
“This is our group,” Stamkos said. “And that was the message was today. We have 20 games left. No matter what happens, these are the guys we're going to go to battle with every day. This group has been resilient all year, to deal with injuries, now trades. It's just another thing to add to the list of things I believe this team will overcome.”
So says the captain.