TAMPA — When Lightning star Steven Stamkos, out since Nov. 11 with a broken right tibia, said he was targeting Saturday's home game against the Red Wings for his return, he left himself an out.
It was slight, and the smile on his face indicated he might have been pulling the legs of the assembled reporters.
But in saying there was a 99.9 percent chance he will play against Detroit — assuming Wednesday's X-rays were good — he left a one-tenth of one percent chance he will play against the Maple Leafs, his hometown team, Thursday at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
"To come back and play as soon as I possibly could, that was the plan from the beginning," Stamkos said.
And, boy, could the Lightning use him now.
After a disappointing 1-3-0 road trip, Tampa Bay, second in the Atlantic Division, is starting to feel some heat from teams creeping up behind them.
Toronto, on a 9-2-1 streak, is just three points back as are the Canadiens. Detroit, on a 5-2-2 streak, is seven points back. As far as goaltender Ben Bishop is concerned, that makes the Lightning's final two games before the Olympic break that begins Sunday "big games at home that are must wins."
A bit strong, perhaps, but there is something to be said for going into the break on a high note, something Tampa Bay could use after skidding on the road and with its current 2-3-2 streak at home after a 14-3-1 start.
"We have to take advantage of the home games," coach Jon Cooper said. "We did take advantage of it at the beginning of the year. Now, it's paramount we take advantage of it at the end."
The Lightning plays 14 of its final 20 games at the Times Forum. To get there, though, it already has played 31 road games, tied for second in the league, including 12 of its past 17, a trek of 13,276 miles, according to travelmath.com.
To its credit, Tampa Bay went 9-7-1.
"It's tough," rookie center Tyler Johnson said. "Obviously, you're living out of a suitcase, but that's our job. It's something we've all had to deal with, being mentally prepared and mentally strong."
"It's a tough way to have to survive, and we have survived for the most part," Cooper said, and added, "I've always said we want to put ourselves in the conversation come March and April when we have those home games. We're hanging around, but we're going to have to take care of business at home the next two games to keep us there."
The template has to be Saturday's 2-1 overtime victory at Montreal where the Lightning played well within its structure.
Players moved their feet instead of reaching with their sticks as they did in Tuesday's 2-1 loss at Minnesota.
They went hard to the net. When pucks had to get out of the defensive zone they did. Against the Wild many times they did not, leading to long stretches pinned in their own end.
"Luckily we've got two home games (before the break)," Johnson said. "We've got to come out and play our game and play hard."
With or without Stamkos.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]