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Injured Tampa Bay Lightning captain Vinny Lecavalier returns to practice with team

TAMPA — The shot, such as it was, came with a full backswing but a soft follow-through that sent the puck cautiously toward the net.

Still, Lightning captain Vinny Lecavalier, in his first practice with the team since last month's knuckle surgery and wearing a red jersey at the St. Pete Times Forum to distinguish he was not ready for contact, was satisfied with the result.

"It's still pretty stiff," he said Tuesday while inspecting the 3-inch red scar across the back of his right hand. "But considering, it felt really good. My stickhandling every day is getting better, shooting is getting better. For the first practice, I'm really happy."

When Lecavalier will play is a little more iffy. He was to have an X-ray Tuesday, but even if that showed the big knuckle at the base of his right index finger is healed, head athletic trainer Tommy Mulligan said Lecavalier also will have to be tested for strength and range of motion.

In other words, Lecavalier is more likely out of tonight's game with the Thrashers at the Times Forum, but it sounds as if he will be ready next week at the latest.

It can't come too soon for coach Guy Boucher, who desperately wants another offensive weapon to take some pressure off Steven Stamkos and Marty St. Louis. Because of injuries to Lecavalier, left wing Simon Gagne and right wing Steve Downie, who is still out with a high ankle sprain, Tampa Bay has not had two offensive lines intact since Oct. 21.

Boucher also wants to build a second power-play unit around Lecavalier, Gagne and Downie.

"We've been doing well without (Lecavalier), and that says a lot for our depth," right wing Teddy Purcell said. "But when you get a go-to guy back, it's a morale boost. It's going to be exciting five-on-five and on the power play."

Lecavalier, 30, has missed 15 games and hasn't played since Nov. 11 at Washington, where he "slashed at a puck" and the twisting of his hand cracked the knuckle first hurt Oct. 16 by a shot by Florida's Bryan McCabe. Lecavalier was expected to be out four to six weeks, so he is at the cusp of that timetable.

He is so eager to return, he said he even enjoyed sitting in on a pre-practice meeting.

"You're part of the team, but you feel kind of away," Lecavalier said of being injured. "You don't go on the road with them; the time we go on the ice is different. It's hard to really feel part of it. It's not fun."

Fun was being on the ice with his teammates and getting time with the second power-play unit. "He looked great," Boucher said.

Except his shot, which Lecavalier admitted holding back. "I want to test it, but I don't want to be stupid with it, either," he said. "I don't want to take 20 one-timers in a row. … We'll see how it feels (today)."

And they decide if he can play.

"I'll have to go back to church," Boucher said, "and light up a few candles."

NOTES: Forward Mattias Ritola (Meniere's disease) practiced and apparently is good to go against the Thrashers. … Mike Smith gets his first start in net since the Dec. 2 debacle in Boston in which he allowed five goals on 22 shots in an 8-1 loss.

Injured Tampa Bay Lightning captain Vinny Lecavalier returns to practice with team 12/14/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 15, 2010 2:22pm]

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