Relief. Optimism. Some barely contained excitement. They all poured from Pittsburgh Penguins center Nick Bjugstad after practice Wednesday at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, and it’s no wonder.
Bjugstad, who has played just 10 games this season and had core muscle surgery, seems likely to return Thursday when the Penguins play the Sabres in Buffalo. Officially, he is a game-time decision, coach Mike Sullivan said.
Unofficially, Bjugstad is pumped.
“If I can get out there (Thursday) I’ll be very happy,” he said.
Bjugstad, who was cleared for contact for Monday’s practice, participated Wednesday in his regular spot, third-line center, between Jared McCann and Patric Hornqvist.
Also missing from practice were defenseman Jack Johnson and forwards Brandon Tanev and Anthony Angello.
Johnson’s wife gave birth Tuesday night, but he is expected to be available for the Buffalo game.
Tanev, who missed Tuesday’s 7-3 win against Ottawa because he was ill, was held out of practice as a precaution, and Sullivan said he is feeling better.
Angello, Sullivan said, sustained an upper body injury Tuesday and is out week to week.
In addition, injured winger Zach Aston-Reese skated before practice.
Bjugstad sounded a little anxious about his return, which could come one game after defensemen Brian Dumoulin and John Marino returned from injury.
“It was the most lengthy injury of my career, so I don’t really know what to expect,” he said. “I do know coming back from injuries you can’t do too much. You’ve got to try to get into the rhythm. Just play simple, try to use my body a little bit, see where it goes from there.”
McCann, who came over from Florida with Bjugstad in a trade a little more than a year ago, is confident things will go well.
“We’ve played together a lot, so maybe just the speed of it we might have to get up again, but that’s about it,” McCann said. “We’re going to be ready to go. We’re going to come out flying.”
McCann has been impressed with the way his long-time teammate handled his recovery and rehab.
“He’s had a tough start, obviously,” McCann said. “He’s been a complete professional through everything. It just goes to show the character he has and the type of person he is. He’s always been positive. It’s something I look up to.”
Bjugstad confirmed what many surmised about his recovery when he began skating, then stepped back before getting on the ice again – he had a setback along the way.
“There were a few times where I thought I was close, and there were a few tweaks that set me back,” he said. “That’s probably the toughest, when you think you’re getting there and you regress a little bit. And obviously not playing the game. That’s what you love to do, going to battle with your teammates. It’s been gone for me for a long time.”
With Bjugstad a full participant and Tanev, Johnson and Angello absent, the lines and pairings looked like this:
Jason Zucker-Sidney Crosby-Conor Sheary
Patrick Marleau-Evgeni Malkin-Bryan Rust
Jared McCann-Nick Bjugstad-Patric Hornqvist
Sam Lafferty-Teddy Blueger-Evan Rodrigues
Brian Dumoulin-Kris Letang
Marcus Pettersson-John Marino
(Juuso Riikola-Justin Schultz-Chad Ruhwedel)