The Pittsburgh Penguins spent much of the last two-plus months watching player after player leave their lineup. For a change, several are about ready to return.
Sidney Crosby, though, isn't one of them -- not yet, at least.
Defenseman Brooks Orpik, out since breaking a finger on his right hand Feb. 23, and forward Eric Tangradi, sidelined since sustaining a concussion Feb. 16, both went through full practices Wednesday -- their first since getting hurt.
Orpik won't be ready for a pivotal Eastern Conference game at Philadelphia on Thursday (7 p.m. ET, NHLN-US), and his status for Friday's home game against New Jersey also is uncertain. But Orpik should be fully healthy for the playoffs, meaning the Penguins soon will have their four top defenseman playing -- Orpik and All-Star Kris Letang, plus Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin.
That group could be stronger than the one that helped the Penguins win the Stanley Cup two seasons ago, when Hal Gill and Rob Scuderi joined Orpik and Sergei Gonchar as the team's top four on the blue line.
"I've just got to get a couple of practices in to get comfortable," said Orpik, who has been skating to stay in shape since he was struck by a shot from the Sharks' Patrick Marleau on Feb. 23.
In 56 games, Orpik has one goal, 11 assists and a plus-9 rating. One of the Penguins' top penalty killers, Orpik is returning just as his team is adjusting to being without another key penalty killer, forward Matt Cooke, who is suspended for the rest of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs for his hit Sunday on Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh.
"It'll be nice to go into the playoffs healthy," Orpik said. "I don't think a lot of guys can say that most years. I mean, it's such a long schedule and you're beat up usually when you get to the playoffs. You're just kind of going on adrenaline."
Orpik is resigned to having pain whenever he uses the top hand on his stick while shooting or accepting hard passes, at least until the finger fully heals.
"Obviously I haven't been in there battling, so I don't know how that's going to be," he said. "It's just kind of something you have to deal with."
Tangradi, who has a goal and an assist in 14 games, is one of three Penguins players -- along with Sidney Crosby and forward Arron Asham -- who have had extended layoffs due to concussions. Crosby, out since Jan. 5, is stepping up his conditioning program on a daily basis, but his return remains uncertain. Asham resumed playing this week.
Coach Dan Bylsma offered no hints on when -- or if -- Crosby can play again this season. But Crosby is doing more than shooting a few pucks and skating around cones, the only on-ice activity he was permitted when he resumed skating last week.
"He's sweating, he's working hard," Bylsma said. "He's working both on and off the ice -- some days, just off the ice. He's putting in significant workouts, but he's not ready to progress."
The Penguins and Flyers, rivals even when they aren't competing for first place in the conference and the Atlantic Division, haven't played since Dec. 14, but will meet twice during the next six days in games that could decide the conference race. They also meet Tuesday in Pittsburgh.
The Penguins begin a demanding stretch of five games in eight days in fourth place in the conference, trailing the first-place Flyers by five points and second-place Washington by four.
"It's a big game, a four-point swing," center Jordan Staal said of Thursday's game. "It's another big challenge to our team to see where we're at."
Still, the Penguins are in a better position than they figured to be after Crosby and former NHL scoring champion Evgeni Malkin were hurt. Malkin injured his right knee Feb. 4 and is out for the season.
"We've got to win two games against Philly to think we have a chance of getting them," Bylsma said. "And that would be our goal. If we don't get that spot, we're still putting ourselves in the best position. Home ice is obviously a big factor going down the stretch here. So catching Philly and getting home ice are two big factors."
Conversely, the Penguins lead the fifth-place Lightning by three points, with a game at Tampa Bay on March 31. So while they could finish first or second in the conference with a late surge, the Penguins also could wind up with no home-ice advantage at all.
"A couple of times in the past few weeks, there have been opportunities for us, and we've taken that opportunity," Bylsma said. "We won in Boston (March 5) … Detroit, they're one of the top teams in the NHL, and we go into their building and win (Monday). You can win 5-1 against Edmonton (March 13), but it's a different thing to go into Detroit and win, Boston and win.
"Our guys are ready to go out there and are ready to play. And we're going to do it against Philly."