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Lightning's Stamkos eyeing early March return @NHLdotcom

Tampa Bay Lightning forward Steven Stamkos told reporters Monday that he is targeting a March 6 game against the Buffalo Sabres for his return to the lineup.

Stamkos said an X-ray taken of his surgically repaired right tibia Monday "looks really good," but "we're playing it smart." He said his next medical evaluation is scheduled for March 5.

Stamkos broke his leg when he fell into a goal post Nov. 11 during a game against the Boston Bruins and he had surgery the next day. He had been hoping to recover in time to play for Canada at the 2014 Sochi Olympics but had to withdraw when a CT scan performed Feb. 5 showed his leg had not fully healed.

Tampa Bay Lightning forward Steven Stamkos is targeting March 6 for his return to the Tampa Bay Lightning lineup. (Photo: Scott Audette/NHLI)

"It did feel good [Feb. 5], but it feels even better now," Stamkos said. "Maybe I wasn't as far along as I thought, knowing how much better it has felt now that I have kept working on it and taking a couple of days off. It's just going to continually get better and that's positive knowing it's doing that."

While Stamkos certainly was disappointed to not have the chance to go to Russia, he said not having the specter of having to be ready by a certain date has made his recovery a bit more relaxing.

"I think now it was kind of a relief for that whole thing to be over and done with," he said. "Just to get all that stuff out of the way and to focus on one thing and that's getting back and playing for Tampa."

Lightning coach Jon Cooper said he's seen improvement in Stamkos just in the few days the team has been back on the ice.

"I think if you were to ask him if he could play right now he would definitely say he could," he said. "There were a lot of times he said he was OK but you could tell he was feeling the effects of some pain. I don't see that anymore. Time is healing the wound."

While Stamkos will not be in the lineup when the Lightning return to action Thursday at the Nashville Predators, coach Jon Cooper said he expects to have defenseman Matthew Carle and forwards Valtteri Filppula and Tyler Johnson ready to go.

Filppula sustained an ankle injury Feb. 6. He missed the Lightning's final game before the Olympic break and lost a chance to play for Finland at the Olympics. He practiced with the team Monday and Cooper told reporters if there are no setbacks the center should be ready to go. Filppula is second on the team with 20 goals and 41 points.

Also practicing Monday were Carle, who is nursing a foot injury, and Johnson, who also has a foot injury; neither player missed time before the break with their injuries. Carle is second on the team in average ice time per game at 22:04. Johnson is second among all rookies with 17 goals and 37 points.

Carle said he has been dealing with his foot issue for about a month, when he hurt it blocking a shot. He said staying off it for two weeks during the break has him feeling OK.

"Not skating for two weeks helps but I guess it's just one of those things that are just annoying," Carle said. "We'll see how the next two days go, stick to the rehab and try to get it better as much as we can."

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