PITTSBURGH -- The struggling Pittsburgh Penguins could be bolstered by a few returning players when they face the Carolina Hurricanes at Consol Energy Center on Wednesday.
After avoiding consecutive regulation losses through nearly the first three months of the season, the Penguins have lost their past three games in regulation since a 4-3 shootout loss against the Florida Panthers on Dec. 22. Injuries and illnesses seemingly have caught up to Pittsburgh, but it could receive a bit of a reprieve against Carolina.
Forwards Beau Bennett and Craig Adams, as well as defenseman Christian Ehrhoff, could return to the lineup after each participated in the Penguins' optional Wednesday morning skate. Forward Steve Downie (mumps) also was present at the skate but will not play against Carolina, Penguins coach Mike Johnston said.
Bennett's potential return could be the most impactful. After missing 16 games with a lower-body injury and contracting the mumps, Bennett skated on Pittsburgh's second line during practice Tuesday.
"I feel pretty good," Bennett said Wednesday. "I'm still progressing really well and if I am back in tonight I just have to play the right way. … After the second time I hurt my knee, and it was the other knee, it was like I was in a bad place mentally. I was kind of asking 'Why me?'
"Some guys have gone through this stuff before early in their career and they've bounced back and had long careers, so hopefully this is the last taste of it for a while."
With Bennett at right wing alongside center Brandon Sutter, forward Chris Kunitz was moved from the top line to second-line left wing. Evgeni Malkin skated to Sidney Crosby's left with Bryan Rust on their right.
If the practice lines hold true, skating Malkin with Crosby and dropping Kunitz to the second line, with forward Patric Hornqvist (upper body) on injured reserve, could delineate Pittsburgh's offensive production and ignite its once potent offense that recently has become dormant.
The Penguins have scored one goal, Crosby's first-period goal against the New Jersey Devils on Monday, in their past two games, in which they were outscored 6-1 by the Washington Capitals and New Jersey.
Entering the game against Carolina, a team the Penguins split their first two games against, Johnston said Pittsburgh's new-found health could allow it to control the pace against a Hurricanes top line he thinks has become more potent with the addition of Jordan Staal.
"Adding Jordan Staal to their group tonight, it's a big plus," Johnston said. "With both Staals and [Nathan] Gerbe on that line, it's a very dynamic line. So recognizing where their strengths are, where their weaknesses are, that's what we have to do tonight."
Jordan Staal had an assist in his season debut against the Montreal Canadiens on Monday. Hurricanes coach Bill Peters said he expects to have Jordan alongside Eric Staal and Elias Lindholm despite Jordan Staal seeming to suffer some discomfort against Montreal.
"[Having Jordan Staal in the lineup] changes things, obviously," Peters said. "It lets Eric be a winger and gives you a little more depth. … It definitely helps."
Here are the projected lineups:
Eric Staal - Jordan Staal - Elias Lindholm
Jeff Skinner - Riley Nash - Nathan Gerbe
Chris Terry - Victor Rask - Jiri Tlusty
Brad Malone - Jay McClement - Patrick Dwyer
Andrej Sekera - Justin Faulk
Ryan Murphy - Michal Jordan
Ron Hainsey - Brett Bellemore
Scratched: Tim Gleason, Zach Boychuk, Patrick Dwyer
Injured: Alexander Semin (upper body), Andrej Nestrasil (upper body), John-Michael Liles (illness)
Evgeni Malkin - Sidney Crosby - Bryan Rust
Chris Kunitz - Brandon Sutter - Beau Bennett
Nick Spaling - Marcel Goc - Jayson Megna
Rob Klinkhammer - Andrew Ebbett - Bobby Farnham
Derrick Pouliot - Kris Letang
Rob Scuderi - Simon Despres
Christian Ehrhoff - Robert Bortuzzo
Scratched: Scott Harrington
Injured: Patric Hornqvist (upper body), Steve Downie (mumps), Blake Comeau (upper body), Paul Martin (undisclosed), Craig Adams (undisclosed), Pascal Dupuis (blood clot), Olli Maatta (upper body), Scott Wilson (leg), Zach Sill (upper body)
Status report: Johnston said Pittsburgh's power play, which has dropped to sixth in the NHL, needs to generate more shots from the point and produce solid net traffic. … Peters said Murphy will be paired with Jordan against the Penguins. Murphy was recalled from Charlotte of the American Hockey League on Tuesday.
Who's hot: Malkin has been held pointless in his past two games, in which the Penguins have managed one goal, but he had scored at least one point in his previous nine. He leads Pittsburgh with 16 goals and 41 points. … Eric Staal has scored a point (one goal, one assist) in each of his past two games after being held scoreless in three straight.