After a spate of injuries, Steven Stamkos is healthy and bringing the thunder again for Lightning

After two years of hard luck and multiple injuries, Steven Stamkos is savoring every goal he scores -- or creates -- and enjoying the camaraderie of his teammates. Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images

The question haunts Steven Stamkos. Especially in the good times, like now, when the 27-year-old Tampa Bay Lightning captain is leading the NHL with 24 points in 13 games and assaulting the record book along with linemate Nikita Kucherov.

What's going to happen this time?

Will it be like in November 2013, when he had 14 goals and 9 assists in his first 17 games before being stretchered out of Boston's TD Garden with a broken tibia, suffered in a collision with the goal post?

Will it be like in April 2016, when a 36-goal season was derailed by a blood clot near his right collarbone, requiring surgery that kept him out until Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals?

Will it be like in November 2016, when he had 20 points in 17 games before tearing up his knee in a game against the Detroit Red Wings, ending his season just as it was beginning?

"He's a thoroughbred. There's no player in the league that's in better condition than him. He's tough as nails," former NHL goalie Glenn Healy said on Sportsnet last season. "These aren't chronic things. Stuff happens."

What's going to happen this time?

"It's always in the back of your head. I don't think anyone can ignore the fact that I've had some tough injuries at inopportune times, especially when things are going well," Stamkos told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "I've been through a bunch of s--- and worked my way out of it with positive thinking -- and, to be honest, a lot of hard work and grinding, and times that were extremely tough and extremely frustrating."

It's been two years of cruel irony for Stamkos and the Lightning. There was celebration when Stamkos decided to remain with the franchise in June 2016, signing an eight-year, $68 million deal with the team that drafted him first overall in 2008. Since then, he's notched 44 points for them, but in just 30 regular-season games.

Stamkos missed 115 games of a possible 328 regular-season games from 2013-17. He missed 16 postseason games in the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs after his blood-clot surgery.

Simply put, the Lightning might well have won a Stanley Cup under coach Jon Cooper were it not for these injuries to Stamkos, who had 18 points in 26 games during Tampa Bay's run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2015. His blood clot limited Stamkos to just one appearance in the 2016 playoffs -- Game 7 against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the conference final. The Lightning lost twice in that series by a one-goal margin.

When Stamkos went down in November 2016, the Lightning had 10-to-1 wagering odds to win the Cup, behind only the Chicago Blackhawks and the Penguins. Without him, Tampa Bay failed to make the postseason the following spring.

So the question lingers for Stamkos, but it doesn't fester. He's not waiting for the other shoe to drop. He's not bracing for the inevitable. He battles these thoughts as a self-professed optimist. He buries them, because if there's one thing he has learned through this series of freakish calamities, it's to value the gift of today rather than the bill your body settles up tomorrow.

"When you're out of that place, and you're in the place where I'm in now, enjoying the moment, why start dragging those negative thoughts here?" he said. "I'm extremely happy having the start that I'm having, but I'm even more happy just to be on the ice with the guys."

One guy in particular.

Kucherov leads the NHL with 13 goals and is second to linemate Stamkos with 21 points, much like he was second to Stamkos in the NHL's three stars of the month for October.

Their line with Vladislav Namestnikov is the fulfillment of a promise they showed early last season, when Stamkos and Kucherov looked like they were playing a two-man game against helpless defensemen before Stamkos was felled with that knee injury. They're the seventh pair of teammates in NHL history to begin a season on simultaneous point streaks of at least 11 games. They're the third pair of teammates in the past 25 years to each record at least 20 points in the first month of the season.

"I was just hoping to get the chance at training camp, but you never know how the coaching staff is going to start the year, with the lines and all that stuff," Stamkos said. "I was obviously hoping to get a chance to play with him. And we're very fortunate to play with Vladdy and pick up where we left off last year."

In some ways, Stamkos was well-prepared to find chemistry with a shifty, unpredictable sniper like Kucherov, because he experienced the same vibe while skating with Lightning star Martin St. Louis for years.

"Kuch is a guy who reminds me the most of having that natural chemistry like I did with Marty," said Stamkos. "It was funny: I was the young kid, and Marty was the veteran guy, and we pushed each other. Marty taught me so much with his experience in the league, and I was able to push him with my youthfulness, you could say. Kuch and I aren't too far apart in age, as Marty and I were, but I feel the same way with Kuch. How he's always working on his game, and how I have to keep up with him. It's been extremely fun so far."

Kucherov is also a student of that chemistry. He watched the way Stamkos and St. Louis meshed, and has consciously tried to emulate it. "I always looked up to them and saw how they supported each other, how they talked, how they moved the puck, where Marty was getting open," Kucherov said via the Tampa Bay Times.

In their time as linemates, Stamkos has been a bit of the Adam Oates to his Russian teammate's Brett Hull, scoring six goals while Kucherov has 13 this season.

Or maybe they're both Brett Hull.

"I would never consider myself to be an Adam Oates," said Stamkos -- who is second among active players in career goals-per-game average at 0.55, behind only Alex Ovechkin -- with a laugh. "Obviously, the way Kuch is shooting the puck and scoring at the rate that he's done it, I guess there's urgency to find him. But shooting the puck is also a big part of my game as well.

"What makes us dangerous together is that teams can't focus on one guy, because the other guy can score. I think you especially see that on the power play. Our unit as a whole has great chemistry, but the other team has to decide which side they want to focus on or take away, and that's when the other can do damage."

Are there enough pucks to go around for Stamkos and Kucherov, to paraphrase an old NBA axiom?

"Not once is there going to be a situation where there's going to be a fight for the puck," Stamkos said. "It's cliché, but it doesn't matter who scores. We're so happy when anyone on the line scores. There's no jealousy or anything like that."

The relationship between Stamkos and Kucherov has grown stronger during the past two years, but isn't necessarily a social one away from the rink. Both have their families -- Stamkos got married over the summer -- and their own interests. But at practice and during games, the two are in constant communication. Well, as much as they can communicate.

"It's tougher with the language barrier sometimes. But he's done a great job learning the language. His English is actually great," Stamkos said. "I don't think he wants anyone to know that, because he'll have to do a bunch of interviews, probably."

Does Steven Stamkos pray?

Does he ever drop to his knees and pray that some unforeseen infirmity doesn't take this season away from him, like it has in previous seasons?

"I wouldn't say I've gone that far. I'm a pretty happy-go-lucky person to begin with," Stamkos said.

That's one of the reasons the Lightning valued having Stamkos around the dressing room during his injury rehab last season. His upbeat personality is infectious. His will to work back from each injury is equally contagious.

"The one thing about Stammer being out is you feel for him," Cooper said. "You know how much he wants to play, and that's the toughest part."

Stamkos is playing now, and playing some of the best hockey of his career for a Lightning team that was 10-2-1 through Thursday and looking every bit like a Stanley Cup contender. But that's months away. Right now, Stamkos is enjoying every goal he scores or that he creates, enjoying the camaraderie of his teammates.

What's going to happen this time? doesn't matter to him, because what's happening now is all that matters.

"When you've gone through some of the stuff that I've gone through, especially in the span of five or six years, it puts things into perspective, for sure. I've learned to enjoy my time doing the thing I love. Because you never know what's going to happen," Stamkos said.

"I've been through that phase, early in my career, where I never missed a game," he continued. "Sometimes you take things for granted when you go through that stretch, and you realize that anything can happen. There's no point in stressing over things. Put the work in. Put the preparation in. That's what I fall back on."