Penguins' Malkin practices but remains out of lineup
His potential linemates were excited.
The players who might lose their lineup spot when he returns were on high alert.
His captain sounded a cautionary tone.
A slew of storylines were set into motion when Evgeni Malkin practiced with his Penguins teammates Tuesday morning for the first time since Feb. 3.
Recovering from a lower-body injury, Malkin started practice wearing a bright yellow jersey to indicate he was not fair game for physical contact. Nick Bonino, practicing for the first time since suffering a hand injury Jan. 12, also wore yellow.
Neither will play Wednesday night in Boston, coach Mike Sullivan said, but it was a significant moment nonetheless.
“It's a big step for them to join the team,” Sullivan said. “It's their first practice with the team. I thought both of them looked strong. So they're that much closer.”
The players who had the most reason to be excited about Malkin's imminent return were his potential linemates, Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin.
Kessel watched as Malkin skated without any signs of distress in the first part of practice, then switched to a regular black practice jersey and joined the top power-play unit for the second part of the skate.
“He looks good,” Kessel said. “You look at him out there, he's skating, moving. He'll be good.”
There was a six-game window between the day the Penguins acquired Hagelin in a trade with Anaheim and the day Malkin was sidelined. Hagelin hit the scoresheet in five of those six games. Kessel had three goals and four assists.
“Great chemistry from the get-go,” Hagelin said. “We had solid possession numbers. I felt like we were doing a lot of good things offensively, creating a lot of chances, scored a couple goals for the team. Something we can build on.”
The players who had the most reason to be on edge as Malkin and Bonino get closer to returning to the lineup are the six Wilkes-Barre/Scranton call-ups who have been populating the team's bottom two lines while they were out.
Scott Wilson, Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust have helped replace some of Malkin's offensive production. Kevin Porter, Oskar Sundqvist and Tom Kuhnhackl have helped eat up some of the short-handed minutes Bonino would usually play.
They have received almost universally positive reviews for their play in a pinch, but for two of them, a seat in the press box or return trip to northeastern Pennsylvania is around the corner.
“Over the course of these past however many weeks, we've known there's been internal competition,” Rust said. “Everyone wants to have their own success, but team success trumps that. We're hoping everybody plays well, but you're hoping that you show one part of your game or another that stands out from the rest.”
The player who took it in stride and kept a level head was captain Sidney Crosby.
Yes, the fact the Penguins managed to keep scoring a three-goals-per-game clip while two of their top three centers were out should give the team confidence. Yes, adding two top-end players to the mix should do nothing but help the club's late-season playoff push.
But, Crosby said, there's more to it than that.
“When guys are missing, I think everyone raises the level of their desperation. For young guys, they realize they have a great opportunity. I think it really brings out the best in guys,” Crosby said. “When you do start to get guys back, you can't relax and think everything's going to be easier. You have to maintain that same mentality.”