After Tampa Bay's morning skate at Toronto's Air Canada Centre, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper ruled out captain Steven Stamkos for the Bolts' must-win matchup tonight against the Maple Leafs.
A few minutes later, Stamkos himself expressed doubt he would make it back for any of the Lightning's remaining three regular season games.
The Lightning open a back-to-back set in Toronto tonight followed by a date with the Montreal Canadiens on Friday. The Bolts close out the regular season at AMALIE Arena on Sunday versus the Buffalo Sabres.
Stamkos will miss his 63rd-consecutive game when he sits in Toronto.
"It's probably not looking that good," Stamkos told a group of reporters following morning skate when asked about the emotions he's dealing with trying to get back before the regular season ends. "It's been frustrating obviously whenever you have to deal with a major injury. I've been unfortunate the last couple years having dealt with a few too many. The good thing is you know when you see the light at the end of the tunnel, it's nice. You put in a lot of hard work to be able to get back out there with your teammates. In saying that, with some of the injuries I've had, you know what it feels like when you're ready to return and when you're not ready."
Video: Cooper on must-win scenario vs. Toronto
Stamkos, who grew up about 45 minutes from downtown Toronto in Markham, Ontario, was scheduled to miss four to six months following surgery to repair a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee sustained during a game in Detroit on November 15. Stamkos has been practicing with his teammates for over a month and reached the start of the four-to-six month window on March 15.
But the 27-year-old centerman said four months was probably an unrealistic goal from the start.
"It was most likely a five-month thing when it happened speaking with the surgeon and the doctors and everyone involved," Stamkos said. "We're not quite there yet. It's been tough, but you know I'll continue to keep going out there and doing the things I need to do on the ice, off the ice to make sure it's healthy and can get back whenever it feels ready."
Stamkos indicated his progression has been steady, but there are issues that still need to improve.
"The flexion in my knee is very limited," he said. "It's gotten better. I think we kind of hit a plateau there which was a little frustrating. Like I said before, there's no setbacks. Everything has still progressed, but it wasn't a minor procedure. This was pretty major. There's a lot of working parts when it comes to the knee with having the tissue heal, dealing with scar tissue, things that are kind of behind the scenes that have been tough. So, we've been working hard. I can't say how proud I am of our group in Tampa with our medical staff and trying to get it, it just hasn't been there yet. But, I'll continue to keep progressing."
Video: TBL@DET: Stamkos leaves game with apparent injury
Despite missing their captain for much of the season as well as other significant injuries to key players throughout the season - the Bolts' 257 man games lost entering Toronto is third-most in the NHL - the Lightning battled back from last place in the Atlantic Division at one point in February to within five points of the Maple Leafs for the final wild card in the Eastern Conference going into tonight's game. Stamkos said watching younger players come up from the minor leagues and energize the Bolts' playoff push has been motivating.
But he's careful not to rush his rehab either and risk re-injuring the knee.
"It's not even a sense of rushing, it's just when it feels right, and if it doesn't feel right then you can't expect to be able to go out there and do the things that you can when you're healthy," Stamkos said. "Obviously with a significant injury, which it was, you want to make sure that thing's healed so you don't ever have to deal with that again. That's the plan."
To make the postseason for the fourth-consecutive season, the Lightning need to win their remaining three games and hope either Toronto or Ottawa stumble over its last three. That's a tall order, but then again, so too was the deficit facing the Bolts when they were looking up at the rest of the Atlantic at the beginning of February.
"No one gave up in that room," Stamkos said. "It was a long shot, but no one had that mindset. We came in, we went on that stretch to put ourselves in a position where technically we're still alive here. You win tonight you put some pressure on some other teams to win…That's the focus tonight is to get that win and stay alive. That's been the mentality since day one."