TAMPA — Lightning captain Steven Stamkos is close to making his much-anticipated return, which could come this weekend.
Stamkos said practice Wednesday 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.
Though Stamkos, 27, all but ruled himself out for tonight'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's home games against the Canadiens and Stars.
"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, (I) maybe (wasn't) thinking it'd feel this good. I'm very optimistic about being able to get where I need to be hopefully sooner rather than later."
When Stamkos was asked if he was ruled out for tonight, he said, "I think so, yeah. Unless something drastically changes."
The Lightning has seven games remaining and is three points behind Boston for the final wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. Tampa Bay has beaten the Bruins once this season and has a Tuesday game remaining in Boston.
It is looking at needing a 5-1-1 finish to make the playoffs.
Stamkos said the Lightning's run has "inspired" him in his rehabilitation.
"I want to be out there as badly as anyone," Stamkos said. "But I want to make sure first and foremost the injury is a nonfactor, and secondly that I can go out there and be a difference on the ice. I know as a leader I want to be around this group, which has helped lately. But I also want to make sure I'm 100 percent."
More medical matters
C Tyler Johnson (lower body), C Cedric Paquette (lower body) and D Jason Garrison (lower body) did not practice and were expected to be out tonight against Detroit. Cooper expected the same lineup tonight the Lightning had for Monday's 5-4 overtime win over Chicago. Cooper indicated that Paquette, who had been skating with the team, suffered a setback. Wing Joel Vermin, who was reassigned to AHL Syracuse on Tuesday, was recalled. "Ceddy's got one of those tough injuries where progress is made and you hit a little bit of a wall," Cooper said. "So we've got to wait and see on him."
Quote of the day
"The joke was, 'Never a doubt.' "
Captain Steven Stamkos (right), on the feeling among injured players after watching the Lightning's rally Monday from three goals down to beat Chicago 5-4 in overtime