The Pittsburgh Penguins will be without Evgeni Malkin on Thursday. According to Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan, Malkin is still being evaluated 36 hours after he suffered a lower-body injury against the Boston Bruins on Tuesday night.
Sullivan declined to say if the continuing evaluation was a second opinion or part of the initial evaluation.
“I’d rather not get into the details of the evaluation process,” Mike Sullivan said. “When we have definitive information, we’ll update you.”
Jared McCann and Mark Friedman were full participants in the Penguins morning skate, but Sullivan ruled both out for the Penguins game against New Jersey on Thursday.
Malkin was injured on Tuesday night when Boston Bruins defenseman Jared Tinordi delivered a hard open-ice hit in the offensive zone. Malkin was slow to get back on his skates. He finished the shift but soon left the bench and headed for the locker room.
A few minutes later, Malkin briefly returned for a Penguins power-play, but after one minute, he again exited the bench and did not return.
Malkin was on a hot streak and erasing the bad start to the 2020-21 NHL season. Before Tuesday, Malkin scored in every March game. He was on an eight-game scoring streak in which he scored 12 points (4g, 8a).
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The void leaves the Penguins perilously thin at center as third-line center Teddy Blueger is out longer term with an upper-body injury. Jared McCann is also a natural center, but he has been absent from the lineup with an upper-body injury. McCann has been skating, and Sullivan has recently said he’s been a game-time decision.
If McCann returns soon, presumably, he will fill the second-line center spot with Kasperi Kapanen and Evan Rodrigues.
However, the Blueger absence will loom large for an already struggling Penguins bottom-six-forwards crew. Fourth line center Mark Jankowski will be elevated, and Sam Lafferty could fill a role until McCann returns.
Jake Guentzel and Evan Rodrigues can also play center. It appears Rodrigues will take the second line on Thursday night. Based on morning skate lines, taxi squad member Frederick Gaudreau, who has 84 NHL games experience with the Nashville Predators, will center the fourth line.
The Penguins’ six-game winning streak ended on Tuesday. The team has also won 11 of its last 15 games and charged into third place in the East Division. The streak was perfectly timed for the Penguins playoff hopes as the fifth-place Philadelphia Flyers have won just three of their last nine games.
The Penguins lead Philadelphia by six points, though Philadelphia has two games in hand. The New York Rangers embarrassed Philadelphia on Wednesday night, 9-0. The Rangers became the first team in seven years to score seven goals in a period.
The Philadelphia struggles directly affect the Penguins in several ways. If Evgeni Malkin is out for only a few days, the Penguins will be back on solid ground in the East Divison race. GM Ron Hextall will be able to focus on filling the bottom-six needs before the April 12 deadline.
If the Pittsburgh Penguins are iffy on Malkin’s health, Hextall may have to spend more to fortify his team with a talented center capable of playing second-line duty. There aren’t many of those and the cost could well exceed the Penguins trade wallet.