Steven Stamkos out Saturday, coy on return from injury

<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nhl/players/4471/" data-ylk="slk:Steven Stamkos">Steven Stamkos</a> of the <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nhl/teams/tam/" data-ylk="slk:Tampa Bay Lightning">Tampa Bay Lightning</a> skates against the <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nhl/teams/san/" data-ylk="slk:San Jose Sharks">San Jose Sharks</a> during the third period at Amalie Arena on November 12, 2016 in Tampa, Florida. (Getty Images)
Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning skates against the San Jose Sharks during the third period at Amalie Arena on November 12, 2016 in Tampa, Florida. (Getty Images)

There was some optimism this past week that Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos could be ready to play as early as Saturday after a long recovery from a November lateral meniscus tear in his knee and subsequent surgery.

Stamkos said a practice Wednesday was his “best day yet” on the ice and that “it’s as close as I’ve been” to returning.

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Tampa coach Jon Cooper said Stamkos was “day-to-day” for the weekend’s slate of games.

Instead, Stamkos will not play Saturday against the Montreal Canadiens and was coy when asked by the Tampa Bay Times about when he would return. The Lightning will play the Dallas Stars on Sunday in Tampa.

“You never know,” Stamkos said “It could be next game (Sunday against Dallas). It could not even be the rest of the season. I’m not going to go out there until I know I’m confident in what I can do and have no hesitation.”

Stamkos did tell the Times that he continues to feel better, but just wasn’t ready to go Saturday.

“I think I’ve done all I can do,” Stamkos added “It’s a process. You see how it feels after a tough skate, see how it feels the day of. That’s pretty much where we are. It feels good some days, it doesn’t feel good some other days. You have to have a feel for what maybe the new norm is, at least for the rest of the year.”

Stamkos has been skating with his teammates in practices since March 17.

On the plus side for the Lightning, the team expects leading scorer Nikita Kucherov to return Saturday after missing a Thursday win over the Detroit Red Wings because of an illness.

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Tampa has played well of late to claw back in the playoff race, but time is running out on whether Stamkos could make a meaningful impact if/when he returns in 2016-17.

The Lightning are four points back of the Toronto Maple Leafs for the final Eastern Conference Wild Card spot and both teams have six games remaining. Tampa and Toronto play each other on April 6 in Toronto.

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