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Lightning’s Steven Stamkos back at practice, aims for playoff return

Tampa Bay Times logo Tampa Bay Times 4 days ago Eduardo A. Encina, Tampa Bay Times
a man that is standing in the snow: If everything goes fine over the next week or two, Nikita Kucherov appears ready to return for the postseason. © Dirk Shadd/Times If everything goes fine over the next week or two, Nikita Kucherov appears ready to return for the postseason.

TAMPA — Tuesday’s practice at Amalie Arena brought something fans hadn’t seen all year: The Lightning’s top two players together on the ice.

Captain Steven Stamkos returned to practice for the first time in nearly a month, working his way back from a lower-body injury. He joined star winger Nikita Kucherov, who had offseason hip surgery that has kept him out all season.

“It’s great to have the whole team out there,” Cooper said. “You want to go into the playoffs putting your best foot forward, so hopefully these guys, we can get them going and get them up to speed. But anytime you have your entire team, you don’t want guys sitting. We’ve got a pretty close group here so it’s great when everybody’s on edge to go.”

The team wrapped up practice with Stamkos and Kucherov working together as part of the first-team power-play unit.

“I think it just makes it a little bit more real,” forward Alex Killorn said. “I know we’ve had Kuch skating a little bit, but for some reason today, maybe because we were practicing the power play and doing certain things, just made it more real understanding that in a couple games, we’ll probably have these guys back. So it’s exciting for the whole team for sure. ... I think we realize with these guys coming back, it changes our power play, it changes our first two lines big time.”

Steven Stamkos in a blue uniform: Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos, who hasn't played since April, was back on the ice Tuesday for practice. © Dirk Shadd/Times Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos, who hasn't played since April, was back on the ice Tuesday for practice.

Stamkos, who last played April 8 against Columbus, is eligible to return from long-term injured reserve for Wednesday’s home game against Dallas. But the Lightning’s focus will be on getting him ready for the beginning of the postseason.

“Just progressing as he should be,” Cooper said. “Good to see him on the ice with us. I think the guys were excited to have pretty much all our players on the ice today. So a good first step.”

That also continues to be the case with Kucherov, who Cooper said is on schedule to return when the playoffs begin.

“The regular season, like it ends in six days,” Cooper said. “We’ll need those (extra days) before Game 1, whenever that’s gonna be, to get everybody ready.”

The league has yet to announce when the playoffs start — there could be a gap of more than a week between the end of the regular season and the beginning of the postseason while Canadian teams complete their schedules.

The Lightning (35-14-3, 73 points) still have plenty to play for in the Central Division race. They entered Tuesday trailing first-place Carolina by four points. Both teams have four games remaining, and Tampa Bay is two behind the Panthers. Florida has just two games remaining, a pair of home games against the Lightning on Saturday and Monday.

Cooper said that Tuesday’s practice session might be the team’s last of the regular season, so it was important to get reps. The Lightning end the regular season with four games in six days.

“The big thing for these guys is them getting their stamina,” Cooper said. “That’s what they need and when you’re cleared for contact and it’s kind of irrelevant, because there’s not really a whole lot of contact going on in any of these (practices), but it’s getting their stamina going right now.”

Tuesday’s practice had a quick pace to it, and included a scrimmage to give Stamkos and Kucherov some game simulation.

“You want to make sure to get them as many reps as possible,” Killorn said. “Because it is going to be difficult no matter what to step in, especially Kuch being off for as long as it’s been. But that’s why he’s so skilled. Guys with that skill can adapt a little quicker than other guys.”

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