(SportsNetwork.com) - The Tampa Bay Lightning will have to wait until after the Olympic break to get star centerman Steven Stamkos back, but the club hopes to avoid a fourth loss in five games when it hosts the Toronto Maple Leafs without him on Thursday night.
There was talk earlier this week that Stamkos would return for Saturday's home game against Detroit, the Lightning's final tilt before the NHL goes on hiatus for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, but on Wednesday it was announced that the sniper has not been cleared for game action by Dr. Ira Gutentag. The decision not only postpones Stamkos' return to the Lightning, but also will prevent him from representing Team Canada at the Winter Games.
The 23-year-old suffered a fractured tibia in a game against Boston on Nov. 11 and has missed the last 39 games while recovering. Stamkos was tied for the NHL lead in goals (14) and points (23) before the setback.
"After reviewing the CT scan this afternoon, Dr. Gutentag made it clear to me and to Steven that the tibia is not completely healed and therefore he should not be participating in game action at any time in the near future," said Steve Yzerman, who is the general manager of the Lightning and the executive director of Team Canada.
"Although the doctor was very pleased to this point with the healing process, he explained that the callus surrounding the fracture site is not 100 percent consolidated, and Steven will not be cleared to play in a game until that happens. It was a pretty clear cut decision, no gray areas at all."
Stamkos will continue to rehabilitate and is expected to be re-evaluated in 2- to-3 weeks. The Lightning will resume play after the Olympic break on Feb. 27 at Nashville.
"Today is obviously very disappointing for me," Stamkos said. "I honestly believe that we did everything possible in order to have my injured leg ready in time for the Olympics, but I realize you can't force healing."
It was announced Thursday morning that Stamkos will be replaced on Team Canada's roster for the Sochi Games by his Lightning teammate Martin St. Louis, who will be participating at his second Olympics and first since the 2006 Turin Games. The 38-year-old winger has 25 goals and 54 points to lead Tampa this season.
The Lightning have performed extremely well without Stamkos in the lineup over the last few months and they enter Thursday in second place in the Atlantic Division.
However, Tampa's 1-3-0 record over a recent four-game road trip has helped the Leafs and Montreal Canadiens move within three points of the Lightning for the division's second spot. The top-three teams in each division receive automatic bids to the playoffs.
The Lightning downed the Canadiens 2-1 in overtime Saturday in Montreal before losing in regulation Tuesday night at Minnesota. Darcy Kuemper stopped 34 Tampa Bay shots in the Wild's close victory in St. Paul.
Valtteri Filppula scored in the loss and Ben Bishop made 24 saves for the Lightning.
"We worked harder (than the last game) we just didn't work smarter," Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper said. "That was a big problem."
The Lightning fell to 16-13-2 as the guest after its recent trip, but will play their final two games before the break at Tampa Bay Times Forum, where they are 16-6-3 this season.
The Maple Leafs will try to rebound on Thursday after having a three-game winning streak halted with Tuesday's 4-1 loss at Florida. David Clarkson provided the lone goal for Toronto, while Jonathan Bernier allowed three goals on 47 shots in the setback.
"The word to describe it is, we didn't have anything going except one person in the lineup is outstanding for our hockey club and that was our goaltender," Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle. "We didn't seem to have any jump or passion to play the game, and it's kind of mind-boggling right now."
After completing its two-game tour of the Sunshine State tonight, the Leafs will complete their pre-Olympic schedule on home ice when they host Vancouver on Saturday. Toronto is 20-10-1 as the home team this season compared to a sub-par 10-12-5 mark as the guest.
The Leafs recorded a 3-2 regulation win over the visiting Lightning on Jan. 28, as Bernier stopped 40-of-42 shots and Nazem Kadri provided two goals for Toronto. It was the first of four scheduled meetings between the clubs this season and it was Toronto's sixth win in the last eight meetings against the Bolts.
The Lightning have won two straight and five of the last seven meetings in Central Florida.