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Steven Stamkos 'as close as I've been' to returning

Steven Stamkos said Wednesday's practice was his "best day yet," in his recovery from mid-November right knee surgery.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Steven Stamkos said Wednesday's practice was his "best day yet," in his recovery from mid-November right knee surgery.

Lightning captain Steven Stamkos is close to making his much-anticipated return, which could come as early as this weekend.

Stamkos said Wednesday's practice was his "best day yet," in his recovery from mid-November right knee surgery. He participated in line rushes (with Adam Erne and Yanni Gourde), and on the second power play unit.

While Stamkos, 27, all but ruled himself out for Thursday's game against the Red Wings, coach Jon Cooper said the star center will be "pretty close" after that, in the day-to-day category for this weekend. Tampa Bay hosts Montreal and Dallas Saturday and Sunday.

"It's as close as I've been," Stamkos said. "I'm not going to put any dates on it, but I'm just very pleased and excited with how it's feeling. Sitting here three weeks ago, maybe not thinking it'd feel this good. I'm very optimistic about being able to get where I need to be to hopefully sooner rather than later."

When asked if Stamkos was ruled out for Thursday, he said, "I think so, yeah. Unless something drastically changes." …

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Lightning begin important 4-game homestand tonight against Blackhawks

Andrei Vasilevskiy is in net for the Lightning.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Andrei Vasilevskiy is in net for the Lightning.

The Lightning play another Game 7 tonight, this one against the visiting Blackhawks. It’s another must-win game for the Lightning (81 points), which is trying to reach that final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

It begins play tonight three points behind the Bruins (84 points), who hold the second Wild Card spot. The Islanders are between the two teams with 82 points.

Eight games remain in the regular season. Tonight’s game is the first of four this week at home, where the Lightning is 19-14-3. It has lost its last three games at Amalie Arena, including a disheartening 5-3 loss to Arizona, one of the worst teams in the league, the last time out.

“We made a pretty good run at home ice, and unfortunately the last three here didn’t go the way we wanted, but if you’re giving tour team a choice to play at home or on the road, we’re definitely picking to play at home,” coach Jon Cooper said. “It’s always a great environment when we play Chicago. I know we only see ‘em twice a year, but anytime you play a team in the Stanley Cup Finals there’s always going to be a little extra boost in the game. This one should be fun. There is obviously a lot on the line for us.” …

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Lightning Strikes! podcast: Joe McDonald on Stamkos, MVP race, Olympics

Steven Stamkos

DIRK SHADD | Times

Steven Stamkos

Times beat reporter Joe Smith and ESPN national writer Joe McDonald discuss the potential return of Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, the MVP race (Nikita Kucherov?), the Olympics debate and an uncertain summer for the Bolts in this episode of our Lightning Strikes! podcast.

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Johnson, Garrison out for Monday's game vs. Blackhawks

Cedric Paquette (lower body) skated this morning without the red no-contact jersey, a sign that he may return Monday when the Lightning play host to the Blackhawks.

Jason Garrison (lower body) and Tyler Johnson (lower body) did not practice and, obviously, will not play. Johnson skated before practice, and coach Jon Cooper said he is making progress.

 

Cooper said there is hot update on Steven Stamkos (knee surgery), who practiced but did not participate in power play drills.

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Lightning recalls defenseman Slater Koekkoek

Slater Koekkoek's recall is likely insurance with the lower body injury suffered by veteran Jason Garrison Thursday.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Slater Koekkoek's recall is likely insurance with the lower body injury suffered by veteran Jason Garrison Thursday.

Slater Koekkoek is finally on his way back to the NHL.

Koekkoek, 23, was recalled Friday by the Lightning, likely insurance with the lower body injury suffered by veteran Jason Garrison Thursday. There's no official update on Garrison today, though he was seen post-game walking around without any brace or crutches.

Koekkoek has played in 29 games for Tampa Bay this season, but his last one was Jan. 8. With the emergence of defenseman Jake Dotchin, and Luke Witkowski sticking due to waivers, Koekkoek had to remain in AHL Syracuse. Koekkoek, a former first-round pick, has done well, with two goals and nine assists in 38 games for the Crunch.

From talking to Crunch GM Julien BriseBois recently, Koekkoek handled his demotion well, and it was a matter of time before he was back.

"He's been pretty solid for us," BriseBois said. 'He's been pretty consistent. He's gone down there, and you can tell night in, night out he wants to be one of the best players, and he is one of the best players. He keeps progressing and eventually we'll see him back in Tampa."

With Koekkoek back, the Lightning could still have Witkowski remain in the fourth-line forward role  he's been in for the past few weeks. …

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Peter Budaj gets start in must-win game vs Boston

Peter Budaj has made just two starts with the Lightning since getting acquired from the Kings in the Ben Bishop trade Feb. 27.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Peter Budaj has made just two starts with the Lightning since getting acquired from the Kings in the Ben Bishop trade Feb. 27.

With the Lightning's playoff chances on the line in a must-win game against Boston, veteran backup Peter Budaj gets the start in net.

Budaj, 34, has made just two starts with Tampa Bay since getting acquired from the Kings in the Ben Bishop trade Feb. 27. But he's been good in both, including making 26 saves in a 3-2 win against the Rangers 10 days ago.

Budaj has strong numbers in Boston, 4-1-0 with a 1.19 goals against average in his career in starts at the TD Garden. The Lightning will need a great game from Budaj after allowing five goals in each of the past three games.

Tampa Bay badly needs this game, trailing Boston by five points for the second wild card spot. The Lightning has a game in hand and two head-to-head matchups, but can ill afford giving the Bruins any points tonight. Boston has lost three straight, just like Tampa Bay.

"With how many games are left, and the standings, it's going to be a feisty game out there," wing Jonathan Drouin said. …

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Steven Stamkos knows time running out on return

Steven Stamkos said progress in his recovery from mid-November right knee surgery has been slow.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Steven Stamkos said progress in his recovery from mid-November right knee surgery has been slow.

Steven Stamkos was once again the last Lightning player to leave the ice following today's morning skate in Boston.

There's no question Stamkos is pushing hard to return as soon as he can, especially with his team fighting for its playoff life with 10 games to go. But Stamkos' said progress in his recovery from mid-November right knee surgery has been slow.

Stamkos reiterates the standings will not factor in his return date, only when he feels 100-percent comfortable. And he's not sure if that'll happen by the end of the regular season.

"The knee is a tricky situation," Stamkos said. "It's something I've never had to deal with before. It's all new to me. There's a lot of movements that a knee is a big part of when you're skating. A lot of things you have to teach yourself over again when you're out as long as I was. I hope I'm on the right path. But time is kind of running out. I hope there's enough time I can help out or we can get back in the mix and get in the playoffs and hope to be ready then. I'll continue to take it day by day." …

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Namestnikov returns, Lightning face Coyotes in another must-win game

Vladislav Namestnikov returns to the lineup tonight after missing three games with a lower body injury.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Vladislav Namestnikov returns to the lineup tonight after missing three games with a lower body injury.

C Vladislav Namestnikov returns to the lineup tonight after missing three games with a lower body injury. He centered the second line during today’s morning skate between Alex Killorn and Jonathan Drouin.

C Cedric Paquette (lower body) skated but wore the no-contact red jersey. C Tyler Johnson (lower body) was not on the ice. Associate coach Rick Bowness, who addressed the media this morning, said he did not have a timetable on when those two will return.

Also, nothing new to report on C Steven Stamkos, who continues to participate in practices and morning skates.

The Lightning face the Coyotes tonight. It begins the night four points behind the Maple Leafs for the final wild card spot. The Lightning have the schedule makers to thank for tonight’s matchup. The Coyotes have the second-fewest points in the league and are playing the second of back-to-back games. They lost 3-1 on Monday night in Nashville.

But, the Lightning have to return to the form that enabled it to claw back into the playoff picture and not play like it did during consecutive losses to the Maple Leafs (5-0) and Capitals (5-3).  …

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Namestnikov returns to practice, expected to play Tuesday

Vladislav Namestnikov returned to practice this morning and said he expects to play Tuesday.

ANDRES LEIVA | Times

Vladislav Namestnikov returned to practice this morning and said he expects to play Tuesday.

C Vladislav Namestnikov returned to practice this morning and said he expects to play Tuesday when the Lightning host the Coyotes

C Cedric Paquette also practiced today but was wearing a red no-contact jersey. C Tyler Johnson, the third of the three centers injured March 9 against the Wild, still hasn’t practiced.

The lines during practice: Palat, Point, Kucherov; Killorn, Gourde, Erne; Dumont, Namestnikov, Drouin; Brown, McKegg, Witkowski.

Every game is a big game with 11 games remaining and two points out of the second wild card spot heading into tonight’s Maple Leafs-Bruins game. But Tuesday’s is a bit bigger being the Coyotes are 29th out of 30 teams in points and they play tonight in Nashville.

 

Coach Jon Cooper’s quote of the day: “There’s still a lot of fight left in the dog.”

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Ondrej Palat, Jake Dotchin good to go for tonight

The Lightning finally got some good news on the injury front Saturday, with both wing Ondrej Palat and defenseman Jake Dotchin available tonight against the Capitals.

Palat and Dotchin missed Friday's practice and were questionable, but both participated in today's morning skate.

However, Vladislav Namestnikov (who skated in red jersey), Cedric Paquette and Tyler Johnson are all out. And coach Jon Cooper said he doesn't have an idea on when they'll be back.

"Between player transactions and injuries, to have that many players down the middle go out is numbing," Cooper said.

The Lightning needs a major response tonight after a 5-0  loss to the Maple Leafs Thursday, which pushed them one point out of the second wild card spot.

"We have to win tonight," Cooper said. "We need the points."

Captain Steven Stamkos, who went through his first full team practice Friday, was back on the ice today. He was still working out a half hour after a lot of his teammates left the ice.

Cooper reiterated that Stamkos wants to return this season, but won't until he's fully ready. …

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Steven Stamkos on first full Lightning team practice since surgery: 'It was a start'

Lightning captain Steven Stamkos took another step towards his return Friday, encouraged with how he felt after his first full team practice since mid-November knee surgery.

But coach Jon Cooper made it clear that by no means is Stamkos' return imminent. And Stamkos admitted he wasn't sure if he'll be back by the end of the regular season, which has 12 games left.

This week marks the four month mark in the expected 4-6 month recovery, but Stamkos said the four-month expectation was out of the window right away. It's somewhere in the middle.

"When it's 100 percent, I'll be back," Stamkos said Friday, his first comments since surgery. "It's a question I can't answer. I've had a lot of ups and downs in this rehab process, where it feels like it's never going to get better. Then you have a week where it goes through the roof in regards to how you're feeling.

"I'll be playing when it feels ready. And I can't say it feels ready right now. But it was a start." …

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Morgan Rielly not surprised by Brayden Point's emergence

Brayden Point has been arguably the Lightning's most consistent forward this season.

DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times

Brayden Point has been arguably the Lightning's most consistent forward this season.

There are many that are surprised that Lightning rookie Brayden Point made the team out of camp, much less smoothly stepping in as No. 1 center in a playoff push.

But Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly isn't one of them.

Rielly, who played with Point in juniors with the Moose Jaw Warriors, always felt the 5-foot-10, 166-pound center had the drive and skills to succeed in the NHL.

"I remember watching him at world juniors when I was in Toronto and telling the guys how good he was," Rielly told the Times. "He's always been an underdog a little bit because of his size, but I think he's coming into his own, having an outstanding year and I'm really happy for him."

Point has been arguably the team's most consistent forward this season. And he's been on a roll since returning from an upper-body injury in late January, with 12 points (nine goals, three assists) in the last 18 games. He's been the team's No. 1 center the past three games since Tyler Johnson (lower body) has been sidelined.

Rielly met Point when the Lightning forward was a 15-year-old callup with Moose Jaw. …

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Lightning Strikes! podcast: Brian Engblom sets up Bolts-Leafs

Joe Smith and Brian Engblom make the case for Nikita Kucherov, pictured, as an MVP candidate.

DIRK SHADD | Times

Joe Smith and Brian Engblom make the case for Nikita Kucherov, pictured, as an MVP candidate.

Times beat reporter Joe Smith and Lightning color analyst Brian Engblom discuss the behind-the-scenes changes that have sparked the team's remarkable run in this episode of our Lightning Strikes! podcast. We also make the case for Nikita Kucherov as an MVP candidate, talk about Brian Boyle's emotional return to Tampa and the emergence of rookie Brayden Point. Listen here:

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Lightning prepare for Leafs showdown: 'It's Game 7 again'

"It's huge, it's Game 7 again," defenseman Victor Hedman said of tonight's game.

DIRK SHADD | Times

"It's huge, it's Game 7 again," defenseman Victor Hedman said of tonight's game.

There's no question tonight's Lightning game with the Maple Leafs has plenty of sizzle, and a lot at stake.

Brian Boyle's likely emotional return to Tampa Bay is a storyline, but even he says to keep in perspective how big this game is for the playoff race. The Lightning is tied with the Islanders for the final wild card spot, Toronto one point behind and a game in hand.

"It's huge, it's Game 7 again," defenseman Victor Hedman said. "All the games will be Game 7 attitude for us. We know it'll be a packed building, fans are going to be loud. Really looking forward to it."

The Lightning will still be short-handed, with centers Tyler Johnson, Vladislav Namestnikov and Cedric Paquette all out with lower-body injuries. Their status for Saturday's game against the Capitals is unknown.

But this will be the first of two remaining head-to-head matchups with the Leafs (the other April 6 in Toronto), which could go a long way in determining who makes the postseason. Tampa Bay is riding a four-game winning streak, on a 12-2-3 run.

But coach Jon Cooper cautions this game is not a be all, end all. …

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Brian Boyle prepares to face former Lightning teammates

"Obviously they got rid of me, they traded me," Brian Boyle said., "I guess they didn't need me that much.''

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"Obviously they got rid of me, they traded me," Brian Boyle said., "I guess they didn't need me that much.''

Veteran center Brian Boyle knows there will naturally be some emotions popping up during warmups Thursday night, when he faces his former Lightning teammates for the first time since a deadline deal to Toronto.

There are some great friendships and memories he built in his two-plus seasons in Tampa Bay, including back-to-back playoff runs. A reunion dinner tonight could be in the cards.

But when the puck drops there will also be motivation, the Lightning having shipped Boyle, 32, to the Maple Leafs Feb. 28 for prospect Byron Froese and a second round pick. Tampa Bay is 6-1-1 since the deadline, pulling to a tie with the Islanders for the final wild card spot.

"Obviously they got rid of me, they traded me - I guess they didn't need me that much," Boyle quipped with a smile. "So I've got to go out and prove, 'Listen, I'm on this team now. I'm here to win.'"

 

Boyle wasn't upset with the Lightning, doesn't have any ill will. It's more that this will be a huge game for both teams, the Maple Leafs just one point behind the Lightning (with a game in hand). With Toronto coming off what Boyle called an "embarrassing" loss to the Panthers, this will be a ticked-off team coming to Amalie Arena. …

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