TORONTO — Steven Stamkos will miss his 63rd straight game Thursday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs, and a return in the regular season appears increasingly unlikely for the Tampa Bay Lightning captain.
"It’s probably not looking that good," Stamkos said after a lengthy skate. "It’s frustrating from an individual perspective where I want to be out there trying to help my team — especially at this (time of) year — but it just doesn’t feel right."
The Lightning, who could be eliminated from playoff contention on Thursday evening, play again on Friday in Montreal and then close out the regular season Sunday against the Buffalo Sabres.
In other words, time has almost run out for Stamkos — at least in the regular season.
Stamkos hasn’t played since Nov. 15 after suffering a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee. He was expected to miss four months after surgery — though the 27-year-old said Thursday that five months was a more likely timetable.
Among the last Lightning players to leave the ice at Air Canada Centre early Thursday afternoon, Stamkos looked like himself as he juked, jived and fired pucks at backup goaltender Peter Budaj, but indicated feeling not quite well enough to return.
He said the flexion — or bending — of the knee was still "very limited."
"This was pretty major," Stamkos said of the injury. "There’s a lot of working parts when it comes to the knee with having the tissue heal, dealing with scar tissue, things that are kind of behind-the-scenes that have been tough."
Stamkos has suffered a series of significant injuries in recent years, including a fractured tibia in his right leg and blood clots that forced him out of all but one game of last year’s playoffs — Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final.
"The good thing is you know when you see the light at the end of the tunnel it’s nice," Stamkos said. "But in saying that, with some of the injuries I’ve had, you know what it feels like when you’re ready to return and when you’re not ready."
"It’s not even a sense of rushing it, I think," he added. "It’s just when it feels right and if it doesn’t feel right then you can’t expect to be able to go out there and do the things that you can when you’re healthy."
Stamkos has scored nine goals and 20 points in 17 games this season.