Stephens strides towards NHL return

Syracuse Crunch

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (WSYR-TV) — There aren’t many things in sports you can count on when it comes to playing during a pandemic. But when it comes to the Syracuse Crunch, there is one thing … roster fluidity. 

The latest move came last week when the Tampa Bay Lightning sent Mitchell Stephens to the Salt City on a conditioning assignment. 

Stephens, a former AHL all-star with Syracuse, is rehabbing a lower-body injury that required surgery and forced him to miss all but four regular-season games with Tampa in 2019-2020. With that layoff comes rust Stephens is ready to knockoff.  

“I’m feeling good. It feels good to be back on the ice playing games. For me, it’s just getting my timing back and feeling comfortable,” Stephens said. 

Stephens registers one of his two assists this season since returning to the Crunch for a conditioning assignment.

In two games with the Crunch, Stephens has registered two assists. The more games the 24-year-old gets under his belt, the more the stats will come, but this rehab assignment is more than just getting numbers. Stephens is looking to get his mind right too. 

“When you get past that initial mindset of being cautious (of the injury), then you sort of get into game-instinct,” Stephens adds. “Your compete level and your drive to play games sort of takes over. You don’t think about (the injury).” 

And Mitchell has had plenty of time to think things over – though he was not alone. During his recovery, Stephens was joined by Hart Trophy winner, and former Crunch star, Nikita Kucherov in rehab. Due to their injuries, the two could not travel with the Lightning on the road. Having teammates share in the battle to get back on the ice makes the battle easier to handle. 

What potentially throws a wrench into that plan is the pandemic. COVID-19 has derailed many teams during the season. Right now, the Vancouver Canucks have over 16 players who have tested positive, forcing the team to shut down operations until the virus is under control. 

For players like Mitchell, he just tries to put his head down and keep working towards his goal of getting back to the lineup.  

“There are protocols. You just have to be adaptable in certain situations. For me, it was to come in everyday and rehab to the best of my abilities. With the help from (the staff) down in Tampa – they’re awesome (and) they definitely helped me get to where I’m at and back playing games.” 

A big question for Stephens, and Tampa fans alike, is whether or not he’ll have a spot in the lineup when his conditioning assignment is over? 

The Lightning, who sit two points back of the Florida Panthers for the top spot in the Central Division, have had plenty of Crunch players come into the lineup and succeed. Guys like Ross Colton, who since his February 24th call-up, has scored four goals and seven points centering the fourth line.

A job usually held down by Stephens.  

“It’s good, healthy competition. Each one of us can help the guys win. Whoever goes in is going to show that should stay in (the lineup). For me, it’s to come back, and as much as I can, show heart, skate hard in practice, prepare the right way and let the chips fall where they may.” 

Stephens and the Crunch hit the Ice for a game against the Rochester Americans Wednesday at 7:05 p.m. 

Ben Thomas Finally Gets His NHL Shot 

After 285 games with the Syracuse Crunch, defenseman Ben Thomas finally got his call to Tampa. Thomas played in his first NHL game Easter Sunday against Detroit. The blueliner registered one shot in 14 minutes of ice time in the 5-1 loss. 

While it might not be the storybook start to a career one would find in the movies, Crunch Coach Ben Groulx is elated Thomas is finally getting his shot. 

“I think it’s well deserved. If there is one guy in our program, it’s him. I think it was great to see him called up and to play a game. I watched the first two periods and I think he did a great job. He’s a solid stay-at-home defenseman… and when he does that he’s at his best. I have no doubt that he can do that on a regular basis.” 

“When you’re in (the AHL) for four years, and you don’t get called up, you get discouraged. There are different situations, and different states of mind, you’re going through and I think Ben went through everything. He’s been a very consistent player for us the past few years. His name has been in many conversations (about going up) and he got injured. Overall, he’s a great example of preservice.” 

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