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Steven Stamkos could return Saturday for Lightning

Tampa Bay center optimistic he may be ready to play this weekend

by Corey Long / NHL.com Correspondent

TAMPA -- Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos participated in every practice drill, including the power play, Wednesday and said he's very close to returning to the lineup.

Stamkos, who had arthroscopic surgery for a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee on Nov. 17, practiced on a line with Yanni Gourde and Adam Erne. Stamkos also participated with the Lightning's second power-play unit for the first time since his return to practice.

"It's progressing really well," Stamkos said. "Everything has gone according to plan. You just want to keep progressing every day and feeling comfortable and confident on the ice. Today was probably the best day yet."

The Lightning expected Stamkos to miss 4-6 months after the surgery; March 17 was the four-month mark. Stamkos said he was unlikely to play against the Detroit Red Wings at Amalie Arena on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET; SUN, FS-D, NHL.TV) "unless something drastically changes."

Video: Weekes and Daneyko on Steven Stamkos' return

Stamkos can now be considered day to day, coach Jon Cooper said. The Lightning host the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday and Dallas Stars on Sunday to close a four-game homestand.

"I don't see him playing against Detroit," Cooper said. "But after that I'd say it's getting really close."

The Lightning (37-29-9) have won three straight and are three points behind the Boston Bruins for the second wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference. The Lightning have one game in hand on the Bruins, but Boston has five more wins in regulation or overtime, which would be the first tiebreaker at the end of the season.

Stamkos said despite wanting to return immediately he isn't going to let the standings dictate his timetable and doesn't want to be a liability on the ice if he doesn't feel 100 percent.

"I think you know me well enough to know that I want to be out there at all times and be a difference-maker," the Lightning captain said. "It's hard this time of year not to be involved, but the guys have played great as of late. Just being around a lot more in the past couple of weeks and competing in practice gives me the itch, for sure. I want to get back as soon as possible. But nothing changes in regards to me needing to feel the way I want in order to play my game out there."

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

The Lightning are dealing with other injuries. Forward Ryan Callahan (hip surgery) will not play in the regular season, and center Tyler Johnson (lower body) and defenseman Jason Garrison (lower body) are questionable to return before the end of the regular season.

Forward Joel Vermin, who was sent to Syracuse of the American Hockey League on Tuesday, was called up again Wednesday. Center Cedric Paquette, who practiced in full and without a non-contact jersey last week, experienced a setback with his lower-body injury and hasn't been on the ice all week.

"I think [Paquette] has one of those tough injuries where progress is made and then you hit a little bit of a wall, so we have to wait and see," Cooper said. "I think our whole season is pretty much day to day right now. We hope to get them back, but I just don't know when."

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