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Stamkos, Kucherov ready for Lightning playoff return

'Everything has been trending in that direction' for injured forwards

by Corey Long / Independent Correspondent

TAMPA -- Steven Stamkos said he expects to be ready to return, along with Nikita Kucherov, when the Tampa Bay Lightning open the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Stamkos, the Lightning captain, has been out since April 8 because of a lower-body injury. Kucherov has not played this season after offseason hip surgery. Neither forward is expected to play in Tampa Bay's two remaining regular-season games.

"The goal has always been to be ready come Game 1 of the playoffs, and everything has been trending in that direction, so that's exciting," Stamkos said Friday. "I'm feeling much better. I'm definitely in a better place than I was a couple of weeks ago."

Stamkos has been a full participant in practices and morning skates this week in preparation for the postseason. He has scored 34 points (17 goals, 17 assists) in 38 games and leads the Lightning with 10 power-play goals.

Kucherov has been skating with Tampa Bay for about two months but has been more active with line rushes recently and is working on its first power-play unit. He scored 85 points (33 goals, 52 assists) in 68 games last season and 34 points (seven goals, 27 assists) in 25 playoff games to help Tampa Bay win the Stanley Cup.

"'Kuch' and I are really close," Stamkos said, "and anytime you can have a rehab buddy it makes things a lot easier just from a mental standpoint too, you have someone to bounce things off of behind the scenes. We're always together doing work, whether it's before practice and before [the media] see us, we're out there working hard. During the games we're either in the gym or getting some treatment.

"I think we're just excited to get a chance to get back on the ice in a game situation. We haven't had a chance to play together on the ice in quite a long time, so we're excited about that."

The Lightning (36-15-3) will play the Florida Panthers in the first round of the playoffs. They are tied for second place in the Discover Central Division and play each other Saturday and Monday to end the regular season.

A start date for the playoffs has not been announced.

"[From] our aspect, it's making sure that they're in shape, they're physically ready to go and they know exactly what our game plan is," Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said of Stamkos and Kucherov. "But the rest, you'll have to ask them."

Stamkos was limited to one playoff game and 2:47 of ice time last season. He scored a first-period goal in a 5-3 win against the Dallas Stars in Game 3 of the Cup Final.

Cooper said April 17 that Stamkos' injury was not related to an abdominal core muscle injury he sustained last season. Stamkos missed games Feb. 11 and 13 with a lower-body injury.

If Stamkos does not play until the postseason, he will have missed 100 regular-season games and 38 playoff games over the past five seasons.

"Anytime you get hurt it's not fun, and unfortunately for me I've had to deal with a lot of stuff lately and it can get very frustrating," the 31-year-old said. "There's no one that wants to be out there more than myself. The first couple of days after something like that you're down on yourself and you can't see the light at the end of the tunnel. Then you start getting up and moving and rehabbing and certainly feeling a lot better, so you can see the light at the end of the tunnel now."

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