The Pittsburgh Penguins could get center Evgeni Malkin back from a suspected rib injury as soon as Thursday when the Detroit Red Wings visit PPG Paints Arena.
Malkin skated at full capacity during Wednesday’s practice at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, and coach Mike Sullivan labeled Malkin as a game-time decision for Thursday.
Defenseman Kris Letang joined the team for practice but has not been cleared for contact. It’s unclear whether he will play in one of the final two regular-season games – Thursday against Detroit and Saturday against the New York Rangers. Letang confirmed that he is dealing with the same issue he had in February and simply “didn’t feel that comfortable” when he originally returned for three games. It’s believed to be a neck injury.
Malkin confirmed he took some contact Tuesday and even Monday when the full team didn’t practice. He looked to be a full participant in practice Tuesday, skating in his usual spot on the second line and with the top power-play unit. Letang rotated in some on defense and then participated some with the second and then the first power play unit.
Malkin noted that at this time of year it would take a couple months’ rest for him to be “perfect” after his injury but said, “I feel I’m ready to play … I want a couple more games before the playoffs. … I hope (Thursday) I wake up and I feel great and ready to play.”
There is no extra pressure, Malkin said, considering the Penguins have not clinched a playoff spot.
“It’s not like if I play, we will the game,” he said. “It’s not like that.”
It doesn’t hurt, though.
“He’s obviously such an important part of this team,” said winger Bryan Rust, who worked alongside Malkin and Phil Kessel at practice. “He does so much. Having him out of the lineup is hard to replace. Anytime you get a player like that back, it gives everybody a boost of energy.”
Malkin feels the same way about Letang, who was having a bang-up season before the injury.
“He’s having a great year,” Malkin said of Letang. “For me, he’s like, a top-three defenseman. A great year for him. He’s the best skater I’ve ever seen. He’s never tired. I skate like that and it means that I’m done. He pushed me a little bit.”
Letang, who began the special teams portion of the practice sitting out but then got time with the second and even the first units, offered a fairly open-ended description of his status.
“When I’m going to be ready, I’ll be ready,” he said, adding that being 100 percent supersedes anything such as getting into a game or two before the playoffs.
He would not predict that he would be ready for the playoffs.
“I talk to the doctor, and we make decisions based on what’s intelligent,” he said. “We go by my health first.”
Here’s the rundown on the injured players:
*Letang has missed four games most recently. He previously left the outdoor game Feb. 23 and missed the next 11 games. He returned for three games before leaving the lineup again.
*Malkin has missed eight games with a suspected rib area injury.
*Defenseman Brian Dumoulin has missed one game because of a lower-body injury. He did not practice and is considered day to day, although it seems unlikely he will play Thursday,
*Winger Zach Aston-Reese has missed 11 games because of a lower-body injury. He also is considered day to day, although it seems unlikely he will play Thursday.
*Defenseman Chad Ruhwedel has missed 17 games because of an upper-body injury. Yes, he often gets left out or overlooked on the injury list. He has only played in 18 games, and the Penguins have Zach Trotman playing recently and Juuso Riikola in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League. But Ruhwedel has held his own when he has played, and at the rate the Penguins are going, you never know.
Of note at practice, winger Jared McCann practiced on the top line with Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel.
The lines and pairings at practice:
Jared McCann-Sidney Crosby-Jake Guentzel
Bryan Rust-Evgeni Malkin-Phil Kessel
Dominik Simon-Nick Bjugstad-Patric Hornqvist
Teddy Blueger-Matt Cullen-Garrett Wilson
Jack Johnson-Justin Schultz
Marcus Pettersson-Erik Gudbranson
Olli Maatta-Zach Trotman