The stick taps from the Penguins players just before practice started Tuesday at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex might well have been for center Teddy Blueger.
Blueger was out of the non-contact jersey he had been wearing – he emerged in one before switching to a regular, yellow jersey just before the session – and has been cleared for contact a little more than a month after he got a broken jaw that required surgery.
“He was full contact,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan confirmed.
Blueger, who got the broken jaw Jan. 23 when he was crunched into the boards by Winnipeg’s Brenden Dillon, recently recounted the bloody ordeal.
He is still wearing a jaw protection contraption, but being able to take full contact is pretty obviously a big step toward his return to the lineup. It’s not clear if he will be required to wear the jaw protection for at least a while when he returns, but it is clear that his teammates will be happy to get him back.
Blueger can man the third- or fourth-line center spot as a strong two-way player. He has eight goals (one shy of his career high), 17 points in 40 games. Perhaps most important, he is a top penalty killer for the Penguins.
“He can do it all,” Penguins defenseman Marcus Pettersson said. “He can win faceoffs. He’s a great shot-blocker.
“He kind of commands our PK. He takes charge. When our PK is struggling, everybody’s not on the same page and decision-making isn’t as (good), he takes charge on the ice and shows to everybody else that they can follow him.”
Blueger was a key component of the Penguins penalty killing earlier this season when for a stretch they led the NHL in success rate. That has fallen off some without Blueger, although the numbers are still good, 85.8 percent to rank third.
“In my opinion, he is an elite center for his role in the league,” forward Brian Boyle said. “I think he’s really underrated around the league. … He studies it. He wants to be perfect at it. He works on his draws, which are huge. He’s fearless. He’ll get in front of shots. And he competes.”
Although Blueger was a full participant in practice, he did not skate on a particular line during initial rushes. Later, during a controlled scrimmage, Blueger skated on a line with Boyle and Zach Aston-Reese, with Dominik Simon as the odd man out.
Blueger also got some work with, you guessed it, the penalty kill.
When Blueger returns, it creates an interesting situation at center. The Penguins, if otherwise healthy, will have five capable centermen – Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jeff Carter, Blueger and Boyle.
Does one of them move to the wing, perhaps Carter on the Malkin line or Boyle on the fourth line as he was during Tuesday’s practice scrimmage? We will have to wait and see.
As for the Penguins’ other injured players, Sullivan said goaltender Louis Domingue (foot) has begun skating some, while winger Jason Zucker (core muscle injury) has not.