-- Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf
could be ready to return to the Maple Leafs' lineup as early as Thursday's home game against Philadelphia.
"He could play tomorrow," Leafs coach Ron Wilson said after Wednesday's morning skate here at Consol Energy Center. "We haven't decided yet."
Phaneuf has been out since Nov. 2, when Ottawa forward Peter Regin
's skate inadvertently sliced a deep gash into his left leg. He underwent emergency surgery to repair the damage and just this past weekend started skating with the club. He participated in his fourth straight hard practice Wednesday morning.
Phaneuf said so far the returns have all been positive, which is why he's eyeing Thursday's game against Philadelphia at Air Canada Centre. He originally was targeting a return next week in Calgary.
"You don't want any pain," Phaneuf said moments after coming off the ice. "Pain is your guide. If you have pain you're not good to go. That's the bottom line. So far I feel good."
Phaneuf was able to keep up his conditioning by riding a stationary bicycle, but he's had to ramp up the intensity in his on-ice workouts over the last several days because he doesn't want to be too many steps behind when he does return.
"The biggest thing was getting ready to come back in top shape," he said. "When you're off for this long guys are in midseason form, so you have got to be ready to go."
Phaneuf admits he's antsy to return to the lineup, but he also knows he has to make a smart decision. For instance, Phaneuf could play Wednesday in Pittsburgh, but with another game Thursday and then Montreal in Toronto on Saturday, it wouldn't be prudent for him to try to play three games in four nights.
"I'm very close," he said. "It's been tough. It's not fun to be hurt. It's tough mentally and tough physically to get back in game shape. The guys have been playing great and I'm very excited to get that opportunity when I do."
The Leafs have won two in a row, both via shootout, including Monday's thrilling comeback in Washington from a three-goal, third-period deficit, but they've picked up only five wins since Phaneuf left the lineup (5-7-3).
"You can't replace him, but we could have been better stepping up without him," Leafs defenseman Luke Schenn
told NHL.com. "It's been a little better as of late, but we're just really excited to get him back soon. He's our captain, our leader and we need him, for sure."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl