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Tyler Johnson may return to Lightning on Saturday

Center, who has missed nine games, could join Steven Stamkos in Tampa Bay lineup

by Corey Long / Correspondent

TAMPA -- Tampa Bay Lightning center Tyler Johnson, who has missed nine games with a knee injury, could return this weekend, possibly joining center Steven Stamkos in the final push for a berth into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Johnson, who was injured in a 4-1 win against the Minnesota Wild on March 9, did not participate in line rushes during the Lightning's optional skate prior to their game against the Detroit Red Wings at Amalie Arena on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET; SUN, FS-D, NHL.TV), but he performed every other drill and spent extra time on the ice with Stamkos and goalie Peter Budaj.

"Every day is getting better," Johnson said. "It's been one of those ones where it was slow at the beginning and now it's going fast, so it's good."

Johnson would not speculate when he could return but said he would be pretty upset if he didn't play again this season. The Lightning will not have Johnson or Stamkos available against the Red Wings, coach Jon Cooper said.

On Wednesday, Cooper said Stamkos, who had arthroscopic surgery for a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee on Nov. 17, was day to day.

The Lightning called up forward Joel Vermin from Syracuse of the American Hockey League to fill out the roster for Thursday.

Video: TBL@BUF: Johnson tips Hedman's feed past Lehner

"[Johnson] is getting closer," Cooper said. "Our lineup is not changing from [Monday]. After tonight there's six games left, so yeah, guys are progressing, but we need them back now."

Johnson or Stamkos could return sometime this weekend, when the Lightning play back-to-back home games against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday and the Dallas Stars on Sunday.

The Lightning, who have won three straight and are 7-3-0 in in their past 10 games, are three points behind the Boston Bruins for the second wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference. The Lightning have one game in hand; the Bruins have five more regulation/overtime wins.

Johnson, who has 44 points (19 goals, 25 assists) this season, said he expected to be on the ice earlier but his recovery has taken longer than anticipated, which has forced him to be a spectator with Tampa Bay competing for a playoff berth.

"I've always said it's tough watching hockey," Johnson said. "It's inspiring to see the way the guys have been playing, but tough having to watch it and not to be out there and not being able to contribute. Especially this time of the season and where we're at [in the standings]. Every game matters and every point matters, so it's tough watching."

Stamkos was a full participant in practice Wednesday before taking part in the optional morning skate Thursday.

"It's as close as I've been," Stamkos said Wednesday. "I'm not going to put any dates on anything, but I'm just very pleased and excited with how it's feeling. I'm very optimistic about being able to get where I need to be sooner rather than later."

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