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The Lightning likely will know today whether D Paul Ranger can play Thursday against the Islanders.

Ranger, rehabbing from April arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder, flew to Birmingham, Ala., to consult with noted orthopedist James Andrews, who performed the operation.

What would Ranger's return mean to a defense that has struggled with the transition game?

"What would any best defenseman on the team coming back to the lineup mean?" coach Barry Melrose said. "That's what it means to us. We get another big body that skates well. He's very important to us."

Not only will Ranger's confident first pass help the transition, he also will allow Melrose to diminish the 27:35 and 27:32 average ice time being lugged by Andrej Meszaros and Matt Carle, respectively.

Said Ranger: "I just want to get back in there and play."

NO MALIK - YET: D Marek Malik,who will join the Lightning as either a tryout or with a signed contract, is not expected in town until later this week.

Melrose declined to comment specifically on the player but said, "If there is a guy out there who's better than what we've got, we'd be foolish not to bring him in."

LUNDIN IMPRESSIVE: Melrose said Mike Lundin has been Tampa Bay's "best" defenseman the past two games.

Lundin simply did what got him noticed last season as a rookie out of the University of Maine. Steady but not flashy, Lundin's body and stick positioning is generally right on. And he doesn't try to do too much.

He is averaging 20:30 of ice time, has an even plus/minus and Saturday against the Hurricanes played 22:37, including 7:09 on the penalty kill.

Lundin, who is without an NHL goal, even had two shots.

"Solid, moved the puck and he battled," Melrose said. "College boy ... he's smarter than anybody else."

MORE ABOUT THE REFS: Melrose acknowledged it is up to his players to work within the parameters of the NHL's current crackdown on stick and obstruction fouls. But he also said players should make penalties worth it, so to speak.

"I'll err on the side of aggressiveness," Melrose said. "Sooner or later, the refs have got to let us play and let guys finish checks and win physical battles. If they're going to call us for those ticky-tack calls, you might as well knock a guy on his (butt). That's what I want to see more of from our team."