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Steven Stamkos practices in full for Lightning

Tampa Bay captain takes next step in recovery from knee surgery, won't put timetable on return

by Corey Long / Correspondent

TAMPA -- Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos was a full participant in practice Friday for the first time since he tore the lateral meniscus in his right knee Nov. 15.

Stamkos had been practicing in limited capacity for three weeks, but the center took part in all drills on the first line with Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point.

"It was good, it wasn't a full team skate because we didn't have enough players to field a team for a skate," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "It was good to see [Stamkos] out there and trying to get some timing back and stuff like that. By no means does this [mean] his return is imminent.

Stamkos said he wasn't going to put a timetable on when he might play again. The Lightning expected him to need at least four months to recover from arthroscopic surgery Nov. 17; Thursday was four months since the procedure.

"[I will be back] when I feel 100 percent, obviously that's not the case yet," Stamkos said. "I can't pick a date because I might not feel 100 percent on that date. I've gone through stuff like this before. You start setting dates, that's when sometimes you set unrealistic goals. When I feel 100 percent I'll be back playing. I want that to be sooner than later, but that's how these injuries go."

Video: Stamkos on returning to team practice

Stamkos said he's happy with the progress he has made to this point.

"It's been a long process," he said. "It was 4-6 months with four months really out of the question at the beginning. We're past that now. First full skate today. Nice to get out with the guys, participated fully. Lots of hard work behind the scenes just to get to this point. Just continue to do the same."

Stamkos said the Lightning's push for a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs has been motivating him. They're 6-2-1 in their past nine games and are one point behind the Toronto Maple Leafs for the second wild card from the Eastern Conference with 12 games remaining. Tampa Bay next plays at home against the Washington Capitals on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; SUN, CSN-DC, NHL.TV).

"It's been encouraging," Stamkos said. "Hopefully the guys can continue to play well. That's helping the process too, just being around this group that has put the last quarter of the season together that a lot of people counted us out of being in the mix. It's definitely helped with the process."

Stamkos said the key to his return will be when he doesn't have any uncomfortable moments on the ice. He has dealt with serious injuries before; he missed 45 games in 2013-14 with a broken tibia, and missed five regular-season games and 16 Stanley Cup Playoff games last season with thoracic outlet syndrome.

He said he thought his most recent injury was minor until an MRI revealed its extent.

Video: TBL@DET: Stamkos leaves game with apparent injury

"It was frustrating," Stamkos said. "A lot of emotions go through your head. Especially with the expectations we had as a team and the expectation that I had of myself. It happened so quick. You have a little bit of a downward spiral for a couple of days. You get on with it quick and then you start the rehab process."

Stamkos took Ondrej Palat's place in line rushes Friday. Palat missed practice with a lower-body injury, and his status for Saturday is unknown, Cooper said.

Defenseman Jake Dotchin also missed practice; Cooper said he did not have enough information for a status update.

"We'll see … that's all I've got for you," Cooper said. "We're getting to the point where it's next man up. I'm not going to sit here and show any concern yet. We'll see … rehab a little bit and test him out. We'll see what happens."

Lightning centers Tyler Johnson, Cedric Paquette and Vladislav Namestnikov are sidelined each with a lower-body injury. Namestnikov participated in practice with a non-contact jersey Friday, but Cooper said he doesn't expect any of the three to play Saturday.

"I would probably rule out all of those guys," Cooper said.

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