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Penguins to be without Malkin, Fehr for weekend games

| Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016, 12:57 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Evgeni Malkin plays against the Canucks on Saturday, Jan. 23, 2016, at Consol Energy Center.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguin's Eric Fehr plays against the Senators Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016 at Consol Energy Center.

The Penguins will visit the Sunshine State for a pair of critical Eastern Conference games Friday and Saturday without their leading goal scorer and one of their best “glue guys.”

Centers Evgeni Malkin and Eric Fehr are not available for the Penguins as they meet the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers, the top two teams in the Atlantic Division, on consecutive nights. Fehr, who suffered a “significant lower-body injury” in Tuesday's win over Ottawa, likely will not return to the lineup for about a month, coach Mike Sullivan said after practice at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry. Malkin, who practiced Wednesday but not Thursday, is out of the mix this weekend because of a lower-body injury.

“He's going to rehab it over the weekend, and we're going to evaluate him when we get back and go from there,” Sullivan said of Malkin. “It did not happen (Wednesday) in practice. It was brought to our attention after practice. It's been something that has been nagging him for a little while.”

About Fehr's injury, the coach said: “It's not season-ending. It's nothing that severe. But it's significant enough that it's going to be longer term.”

To bolster the team's supply of centers, the Penguins called up Oskar Sundqvist from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, where the 21-year-old Swede tallied five goals and 11 assists in 39 games. Sundqvist, a third-round pick in the 2012 draft, is yet to make his NHL debut.

“From Day 1 in Wilkes-Barre, he's been playing against other teams' top lines in a checking role,” associate general manager Jason Botterill said. “We do see him as a guy who can play center and wing and be a PK guy at the National Hockey League level.”

The absence of Malkin means the Penguins must figure out who will skate between Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel, two speedsters with scoring chemistry that immediately surfaced after Hagelin arrived in a mid-January trade with Anaheim.

Matt Cullen, a fourth-line center for most of this season, skated in Malkin's place during Thursday's practice.

An opportunity to anchor Hagelin and Kessel represents a change of roles for Cullen, who spent the past several months passing to call-ups from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and concentrating on denying opponents' scoring opportunities.

“We understand that sometimes you have to do those (defensive) things when we have guys like we have on the top couple lines,” Cullen said of his fourth-line role. “It's important that we make sure we take care of our end and try to spend as much time in their end and create momentum for our team. If we draw penalties and get them on the power play, perfect. And if we put some pucks in the net, that's great, too. But most importantly, play a solid, 200-foot game.”

Fehr, like Cullen, provides the most value to the Penguins as a penalty killer and a shot suppressor.

Wingers Tom Kuhnhackl and Bryan Rust likely will receive more penalty-kill time in Fehr's absence, and Kevin Porter is the leading candidate to handle the fourth-line center responsibilities.

“These guys have a comfort level with the concepts, as far as how we're killing penalties,” Sullivan said of Kuhnhackl and Rust. “We did it the same way in Wilkes-Barre when I was there with them, and they were very good at it down there. Having said that, it's a different challenge at the NHL level, and that's something they'll have to get used to. I certainly trust them in that circumstance.”

Porter, who has experience as a center, expressed no preference for a position on the wing versus in the middle.

“I think there's a lot more thinking to do with center, and sometimes you get more involved in the game right off the bat because you're taking draws,” Porter said. “You're in that battle mentality right off the bat.”

Sullivan hesitated to specify how much time Fehr might miss with his injury, which stemmed from a hit into the boards he awkwardly absorbed in the second period of Tuesday's win. But the coach readily explained where Fehr's absence will sting the most.

“He's one of those guys — I call them glue guys — they do a lot of the thankless jobs that it's hard to quantify in a statistic, or it doesn't always show up on the scoresheet at the end of the night,” Sullivan said. “Battles on the boards. Faceoff coverages. Penalty kills. Shot blocks. Decisions with the puck in the critical areas of the rink that make your team difficult to play against. Eric is one of those guys. He helps teams win.”

Jonathan Bombulie contributed. Bill West is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at wwest@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.

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