Neal injury means shuffling for Malkin line
The real deal for Evgeni Malkin is he could be skating with a lot of different linemates for a while.
James Neal, the regular right winger on a second line centered by Malkin, is week-to-week with an unspecified upper-body injury, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said Friday.
Neal has not practiced since Sunday. He took only five shifts and played fewer than four minutes in the Penguins' 3-0 season-opening home victory over New Jersey on Thursday.
No opponent — certainly not the Sabres, who visit Consol Energy Center on Saturday night — will feel sorry for such a blow to the Penguins' offense.
Malkin, after all, is one of two former scoring champions (Sidney Crosby) on a roster that also includes wingers Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis — a top-line duo that combined for 133 goals the past three seasons.
Still, Bylsma conceded Friday that his Penguins lack any one player to replace what Neal can bring.
“I don't think a replacement or a guy next to (Malkin) should think about trying to be a James Neal,” Bylsma said. “He scores 40 and does certain things for a reason.”
A big reason — and this is a point Malkin and Neal repeatedly have stressed over the past three years — is an on-ice bond so strong that often one of Bylsma's biggest challenges is finding a left winger for his second line.
Jussi Jokinen had convinced coaches he was the fit for that opening, and the Penguins' lines during practice on Friday suggested he would remain to Malkin's left.
To Malkin's right at practice was Beau Bennett, who as a rookie last season occasionally was the left winger with Malkin and Neal.
Bennett, the Penguins' 2010 first-round pick, has progressed rapidly in the view of coaches, who had viewed him as offensive catalyst on a third line alongside center Brandon Sutter.
Bylsma did not commit to Bennett staying to the right of Malkin's in Neal's absence. He also said the opener against New Jersey likely provided a blueprint for how the Penguins will use Malkin while Neal is out.
After Neal left that game, Malkin skated four shifts as the right winger with Crosby and Kunitz. Malkin also centered a line with Tanner Glass to his left and Craig Adams on the right.
“That will probably continue,” Bylsma said.
Malkin said last week he felt “ready” to reassert himself as one of the NHL's dominant offensive forces. Various injuries limited him to 31 games (out of 48) last season, though he still averaged a point per game with nine goals and 24 assists.
The last time the NHL staged a full season, Malkin ran away with his second scoring title and won the MVP after scoring 50 goals and producing 109 points. That season was his first with Neal as a linemate, and Neal had 40 goals and 81 points.
Neal has said the secret to his success with Malkin is “giving him the puck and getting open because he will find you.”
Malkin said Neal often does not give himself enough credit, citing Neal's knack for finding soft spots in the offensive zone, Neal's deceptive speed and a shot that New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur described as “one of best in the NHL.”
“Neal is more than just a great shooter,” Brodeur said last season. “But, obviously, his shot is something special and when he's with Malkin, that makes (the Penguins) really dangerous.”
Note: The Penguins' opener Thursday, part of which was broadcast opposite the Pirates' playoff game, drew an 8.8 rating for Root Sports, Nielsen Media Research reported. About 275,000 viewers watched the game in Western Pennsylvania.
Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.
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