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Steven Stamkos is hungrier than ever

TAMPA, Fla. -- It was the sound Steven Stamkos made when he was lying on the ice that fateful November afternoon that made it immediately clear to one opposing player that the injury was serious.

Meanwhile, Jon Cooper, reverting into cautiously optimistic coach mode, was trying to reassure himself that it might not be so bad.

It wasn't until former Tampa Bay Lightning forward Nate Thompson looked up from the bench and said otherwise -- "Stammer never stays down" -- that Cooper knew he was mistaken.

And then the stretcher came out.

It was a grisly scene, one of the league's most dynamic, captivating young players writhing in agony, pounding his glove onto the ice in distress. Watch the video and it's clear that Stamkos knew exactly what was wrong. Even an amateur lip-reader can plainly make out what he's telling head athletic trainer Tom Mulligan: "It's broken."

In the initial shock of the injury, which happened when he got tangled up with Bruins defenseman Dougie Hamilton and went hurtling into the right goal post during the second period of the team's matinee match against Boston on Nov. 11, 2013, he thought maybe he could skate it off. Stamkos described the feeling as if he had just hit his shin hard on a coffee table. He thought that maybe he could continue playing. But when he got up out of sheer, shake-it-off instinct, he felt a searing jolt of pain that brought him immediately back to the ice.

"I got up and went to take a stride and I felt the bone move," Stamkos told ESPN.com. "I knew. I had obviously never broken a bone like that before, but you know when you're in a situation like that."

In the immediate aftermath, even with team trainers discouraging him from jumping to conclusions, Stamkos was devastated.

"I was thinking 'Why now?' Our team was playing so well. I was playing the best hockey of my life. Olympic year, big year for the team, so it was tough," Stamkos recalled. "But you have to go through those moments to mature as a person and as a player and realize how fortunate you are and to not take things for granted."

Turns out Stamkos was right, he had suffered a broken right tibia, and he wasn't the only one lamenting the timing. His teammates were shaken. Players around the league were stunned, and not just those that were figuring to play alongside him in the 2014 Sochi Olympics. General manager Steve Yzerman was in a tough spot, having to wonder about the implications for both the teams he was in charge of -- the Lightning and Team Canada. Cooper admits he allowed himself a 24-hour "Jon Cooper pity party" after learning the news.

In fact, Cooper still recalls seeing Stamkos struggle off the charter plane following surgery. It was a painful ordeal for all parties involved ("That was the worst 10 minutes of my life," Stamkos said) and a sobering reminder that indeed the team would be without its superstar center.

Fast forward 11 months and Stamkos is almost fully recovered, a relief to everyone within the Lightning organization and a huge coup with postseason hopes to chase down this season. As captain of the Lightning and the team's most dynamic offensive force, Stamkos is expected to lead the team in what is considered to be a wide-open Eastern Conference race. The 24-year-old has already captured two Rocket Richard trophies in his six-year NHL career, and he might've captured a third had he not been felled one month into his 2013-14 campaign.

Could this be the type of season in which Stamkos garners consideration for the Hart? It's hard to imagine he won't be in the running if he can stay healthy and pick up where he left off prior to the injury.

Whereas Stamkos was noticeably limited last season when he made his return in March, he shows no visible signs of tentativeness now. During one of the last preseason games of the season, Stamkos tussled with Florida Panthers forward Jussi Jokinen in the corner. One game later, he picked the top right corner against Panthers netminder Al Montoya, exploiting just the smallest sliver of space with the type of surgical, jaw-dropping shot that remains his most dangerous weapon.

"He can shoot the puck. You just give him the right angle and -- honestly, he doesn't even need an angle, the guy can score goals and that gives teams a lot of confidence," said defenseman Anton Stralman.

Stamkos still manages to impress with his speed, his skill and his hands.

"Oh yeah," said one Western Conference scout. "He's dialed-in, even timing-wise."

That Stamkos is almost back to peak form -- he was averaging more than a point per game in the 16 games before sustaining the injury -- is a testament to his superior work ethic, an attribute that has aided him since he broke into the league as an 18-year-old rookie in 2008.

"That's just what he does, injury or no injury," Yzerman told ESPN.com. "Every practice, every game, he has a tremendous work ethic."

The first month of rehabilitation was both excruciating and maddening for the former first overall draft pick. Stamkos had trouble with even the mundane tasks of daily life such as getting up to go to the bathroom or grabbing a drink from the refrigerator. He had a rotating cast of characters including his mother, his girlfriend, team trainers, even interns that were swinging by his house to help. But the Olympics served as ample motivation for him to push himself to recover as quickly as possible.

"It really took a toll on him. He had his heart set on representing his country in Sochi. Right up until the last minute, he thought there was a chance." Agent Don Meehan on Steven Stamkos missing Olympics

Stamkos was zealous in his rehab, putting in time on the underwater treadmill, doing whatever Mulligan and Mike Poirier had in store. The time away from the game was eating at him, but he maintained a relentlessly positive attitude.

Ultimately, he wasn't cleared in time for the Olympics, though the Canadian team took home the gold medal without him in Sochi.

"It really took a toll on him," Stamkos' agent, Don Meehan, told ESPN.com "He had his heart set on representing his country in Sochi. Right up until the last minute, he thought there was a chance. In the end, he understood and respected that and knew, in the long run, it was [the] best decision [that] could be made.

"It's incredible the time frame in which he was able to come back," Meehan said of Stamkos' return to the Lightning for the last five weeks of the regular season. "That really tells me this is someone that loves the game."

Someone who loves the game and is now even hungrier than ever to win.

It has been 11 months since that game in Boston. A full calendar year is generally required to recover from the injury he sustained. Though he doesn't feel hampered by it now, there are still days he feels sore or tender.

Stamkos hopes those days are numbered and soon this will be something he no longer has to revisit.

The Lightning hope so too.

"I'm just excited for the day you wake up and never have to think about it again. You never have to worry about it. You never have to ice it," he said. "And it's getting close. Just the difference between the end of the year [last season] and now, that's what's got me excited, because I know how much better it feels."