For Ryan Malone, the critical moment of Friday's practice came when he and teammate Marc-Andre Bergeron skated toward the side boards after a puck.

"Battle, 'Bugsy,' battle!" Lightning head athletic trainer Tommy Mulligan yelled.

Malone and Bergeron shook the glass with their collision. Malone skated easily away, the best sign yet the left wing had overcome the upper-body injury that has sidelined him for six games.

"It feels good," Malone said later in the locker room. "We'll see how it feels (today) and play it by ear."

Music to Malone's ears would be getting the call for tonight's game with the Sabres at the First Niagara Center. It would make coach Guy Boucher happy, too.

"All I know is I'm a coach," Bou­cher said, "and when is he coming back?"

Coaches have asked that in each of Malone's four seasons with Tampa Bay. In only one, 2008-09, has he played 70 games. He can match that this season if he plays in the team's final 29.

The Lightning, precariously on the edge of the playoff race, could use him.

At 6 feet 4, 219 pounds, the Pittsburgh native, with 10 goals and 27 points in 41 games, brings a physical presence the team otherwise does not have. He plays on the power play and penalty kill, gets to the front of the net and bangs bodies.