TAMPA — RW Steve Downie is getting closer to returning to the Lightning lineup.
Downie, who suffered a high right ankle sprain Dec. 2 against Boston, has skated four times in the past two weeks, though not with the team. Coach Guy Boucher said Downie could start practicing hard — and potentially could play in a game — in a week or so.
"I'm starting to get hope now," Downie said. "It's getting more exciting now as it's feeling better and better. I can't wait to get back."
Downie said he still wears a walking boot as a precaution, and he's not dealing with as much pain. "You have bad days, you have good days," he said.
Downie had been one of the team's best players before he got hurt, racking up 15 points in 23 games while on the top line with LW Marty St. Louis and Steven Stamkos.
Downie said he's not surprised the team has done so well in his absence, with other players stepping up as they did during injuries to captain Vinny Lecavalier and Simon Gagne.
Because of the nature of his injury, Downie hasn't been able to do as much conditioning as Lecavalier (hand) and Gagne (neck/back) did when they were out. "When Downie comes back, he probably won't be at his best right away," Boucher said.
But his return will give the team a big boost.
"What it does is, it fills out our roster with more depth, and it puts everybody in their normal spot, which makes us a better team," Boucher said. "When you're missing a top-six forward, when he comes back, no matter where you put another guy, you're a better team. We're definitely hoping he comes back fast."
STEPPING IN: With D Randy Jones (upper body) out, D Matt Smaby was excited to be in the lineup for the first time since Dec. 22. Smaby, playing in his 15th game this season, said the key in dealing with layoffs is making practice count. Layoffs are "more of a drain mentally than physically," he said.
"I'm a very competitive guy, and I want to be in there every game," Smaby said. "When I'm not in there, it's tough. But I'm here to support my teammates and do whatever I can off the ice to be ready."
OZZIE BE GOOD: G Dan Ellis said Red Wings G Chris Osgood earning his 400th career victory Monday night was an "extremely impressive" achievement.
"Not many people are able to do that in their career," said Ellis, who entered Tuesday's start against the Bruins with 61 career wins. "He's a champion, and I think people underestimate the type of career he's had because maybe he hasn't been in the forefront of those championship teams. But he's always been there and always played a pivotal part."
MISCELLANY: Florida football coach Urban Meyer yelled the ceremonial "Let's play hockey!" before the game. … St. Louis appears from 6-7 p.m. today at Kuhn Volkswagen, 3900 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa, to sign autographs. … The Lightning holds a holiday youth hockey clinic today and Thursday for kids 6-15 at the St. Pete Times Forum. Call (813) 301-6704 or (813) 301-6735.
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]