WINNIPEG, Manitoba - The last two weeks have been both unfamiliar territory and a learning experience for Martin St. Louis, and thankfully it's about to end.

A fitness devotee who turns 40 this summer, the right wing had never been sidelined long by injuries in an NHL career that began in Calgary in the 1998-99 season and spanned 1,128 games.

That is, until he sprained the MCL in his right knee against the Panthers on March 15. Tuesday night he missed his eighth straight game, against the Jets at MTS Center and a 3-2 victory for the Blueshirts.

"I've played through a lot of stuff not to miss games," he said Tuesday after his first morning skate with the Rangers since the injury. "This is one of those things that you just can't play through."

But getting back into the lineup is now on the radar for St. Louis, who has regained his confidence and jump and is targeting Thursday's game in Minnesota for a return that he hopes will prepare him for the Stanley Cup playoffs.

"With a full practice [Wednesday], I think it will allow me to be ready to go, I think on Thursday," said St. Louis, who has 20 goals and 27 assists in his first full season with the Blueshirts. Coach Alain Vigneault, who watched St. Louis skate as an extra defenseman here, shared the optimism.

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"He's skates away," Vigneault said. "He'll probably get on a regular line rotation" in Minnesota.

With St. Louis back in the top two lines, it provides a domino effect that will allow Vigneault to move winger J.T. Miller down and strengthen the third line, and drop Jesper Fast to the fourth line, which will bolster that trio.

There was little doubt that St. Louis, who is generally one of the first players on ice at practice, shooting pucks, and one of the last to leave, was feeling better as he explained his progress.

"For me, it's my first whack at this," said St. Louis, who has played 77 or more regular-season games in 12 of his NHL seasons. In his initial skating after wrenching the knee near the end of that Panthers game, he said, "you find yourself protecting it; there's certain motions that hurt early on, and you try to protect it. Once you get confidence, as it gets better, you don't need to protect it as much. Every day, I felt better and better."

Tuesday, St. Louis said he was "not cautious in my stride. The first few strides are a big part of my game; I was able to stride in my first couple and have some jump."

St. Louis, who will be a free agent and wants to play next season, rested completely on Monday after pushing himself for the last week, skating every day.

"Everybody that knows me, some of the things they were saying to me were to take some positive out of this," said St. Louis, who won a Stanley Cup with Tampa Bay in 2003-04. "They were encouraging me to look on the bright side, to take a couple weeks and recharge mentally, physically."

And now, he said, he can look forward to playing some or all of the six games before the first round of the post-season in mid-April, and begin to "get a true feel and build your game." That certainly should be a positive for the Rangers.