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Better Late Than Never? Kulikov Ready to Return



Dmitry Kulikov

Dmitry Kulikov made it into all of three games and part of a fourth after the Pittsburgh Penguins acquired him from Anaheim at the NHL trade deadline.

That was enough to log 50 minutes, 39 seconds of ice time, during which Kulikov was credited with one assist, six hits and four blocked shots.

Perhaps it even gave him a chance to get on a first-name basis with most of his teammates, and to begin to get comfortable with coach Mike Sullivan’s systems.

But was it enough to prepare Kulikov, who hasn’t played since being injured against the New York Rangers March 12, to step into a high-stakes situation with a team battling to earn a spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs?

That question might be answered Tuesday, because Kulikov, who sat out the past 14 games because of an unspecified lower-body injury, sounds as if he expects to be in the lineup when the Penguins face Chicago at 7:38 p.m. at PPG Paints Arena.

Monday, he went through a full practice, during which he partnered with Jan Rutta, and said the Blackhawks game is one he and the medical staff targeted for his return a while ago.

“I feel pretty good,” Kulikov said. “I wasn’t expecting to be so much better at the four-week mark, but it’s healing right now. … The doctors and me, the whole time, we looked at the schedule and kind of marked tomorrow’s game as a game I can come back in.”

Regardless of when he returns, Kulikov won’t have the luxury of easing back into things, since the Pittsburgh Penguins’ season could end before this week does.

That means getting up to speed — literally — could be a significant challenge for him.

“You can’t really replicate (the speed of the game) in skates and practices,” Kulikov said. “The game is a whole different thing. You need to get your timing back, and then you’re right back with everybody else.”

Kulikov isn’t the only reinforcement the Penguins might get against Chicago.

Forward Nick Bonino, who missed the past 16 games because of a lacerated kidney, also practiced Monday, moving into injured left winger Drew O’Connor’s usual spot with Jeff Carter and Josh Archibald.

“I feel really good, fitness-wise,” Bonino said. “Just waiting for things, internally, to fully patch up, I think.”

Whether he’ll receive the medical clearance required to get back into games before Tuesday evening isn’t known, however.

“I think that’s what we’re kind of waiting on,” Bonino said. “Right now, I’m cleared for these skates.”

Sullivan was typically noncommittal about whether Kulikov and/or Bonino will play against the Blackhawks, but allowed that being a full participant in practice “obviously is the last step before they return to play.”

He added that “we’ll see where these guys are tomorrow (and) we’ll make decisions accordingly, with the help of our medical staff.”

Defenseman Marcus Pettersson, who has missed the past 11 games because of an undisclosed injury, also practiced Monday and is eligible to come off the Long Term Injured list for the regular-season finale Thursday night in Columbus.

Although Bonino is best-known as a center — and was acquired from San Jose at the trade deadline to fill that role on the No. 4 line — he said he has shifted between the middle and left side “for the past couple of years.”

The Pittsburgh Penguins were hoping Bonino, a member of their Stanley Cup-winning teams in 2016 and 2017, would improve their penalty-kill and help them on faceoffs, but he didn’t stay healthy long enough to have a meaningful impact.

Not yet, anyway.

“It was frustrating,” Bonino said. “You leave your family, especially, come out, excited to get here, play three games and the effectively sit out a couch for two weeks with zero, anything. You can’t do anything physical.”