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At the Rink: Penguins at Avalanche

by Rick Sadowski

DENVER -- Defenseman Kris Letang is expected to return to the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup Wednesday against the Colorado Avalanche (10 p.m. ET; NBC-SN, ROOT) at Pepsi Center after missing two games with an undisclosed injury.

"I told the trainer I was ready to go," Letang said after the morning skate. "I felt pretty good. I had a good practice [Tuesday]."

Letang said he was injured Dec. 1 against the San Jose Sharks in the opening game of Pittsburgh's four-game road trip that ends Wednesday.

"You deal with some injuries throughout the year and you don't want to make them worse as the year goes on, so it was good to sit out those two games," said Letang, who has one goal and 13 assists in 24 games.

Penguins coach Mike Johnston said he would need to discuss Letang's status with the training staff before making a definitive decision but sounded optimistic he would play.

"He looked like he was ready to play," Johnston said. "I asked him on the ice and he said he was fine. The trainers will let me know."

Offensive production has been a problem for the Penguins (14-10-2), who have gone 1-2-0 in the first three games of the trip and 1-2-2 in the past five games overall. They're coming off a 2-1 loss Sunday to the Anaheim Ducks.

"As far as scoring goes, we should be scoring at a higher rate, getting a few more goals," Johnston said. "As far as our defensive play and how we've kept our goals against down, we're probably one of the better teams in that area. Definitely creating chances, getting second-chance opportunities, we've got to get those."

Evgeni Malkin leads the Penguins with eight goals, followed by Phil Kessel (seven) and Sidney Crosby (five), whose scoring has picked up after a slow start. Crosby has four goals and five assists in the past eight games.

"Our compete level kind of seems to dictate everything," Crosby said. "When we're working hard, winning our battles in every area of the ice. When we're moving our feet, we execute better. I think that's a good place to start. A lot of those details seem to come when the work ethic and the compete level are there."

Crosby is likely to be on the ice often at the same time as the Avalanche's top line of Gabriel Landeskog, fellow Nova Scotia native and center Nathan MacKinnon, and Matt Duchene.

"Their speed is a big thing," Crosby said. "Their [defense] join the play and they have a really good transition. Just try and turn the puck over and make sure we can slow them down as best we can."

The Avalanche (12-15-1) are closing out a two-game homestand following a 2-1 overtime win against the Minnesota Wild on Monday. They've won three of their past four games, all by 2-1 scores.

Goalie Reto Berra will start after backing up Semyon Varlamov for the past three games. He made 26 saves Nov. 19 a 4-3 loss at Pittsburgh.

"Reto's been phenomenal for us," Avalanche coach Patrick Roy said. "He played really well against New Jersey, a 2-1 win (Dec. 1) and he deserves to play."

Here are the projected lineups:


Chris Kunitz - Sidney Crosby - Beau Bennett

David Perron - Evgeni Malkin - Phil Kessel

Eric Fehr - Nick Bonino - Patric Hornqvist

Sergei Plotnikov - Matt Cullen - Daniel Sprong

Olli Maatta - Kris Letang

Brian Dumoulin - Ben Lovejoy

Ian Cole - David Warsofsky

Marc-Andre Fleury

Jeff Zatkoff

Scratched: Adam Clendening, Rob Scuderi


Gabriel Landeskog - Nathan MacKinnon - Matt Duchene

Alex Tanguay - John Mitchell - Jarome Iginla

Andreas Martinsen - Carl Soderberg - Blake Comeau

Cody McLeod - Chris Wagner - Jack Skille

Francois Beauchemin - Erik Johnson

Nick Holden - Tyson Barrie

Brandon Gormley - Nate Guenin

Reto Berra

Semyon Varlamov

Injured: Ben Street (chest), Brad Stuart (back), Jesse Winchester (head)

Scratched: Mikhail Grigorenko, Zach Redmond

Status report: Because Pascal Dupuis retired Tuesday, Sprong will return to the Penguins lineup after being a healthy scratch for eight consecutive games.

Who's hot: Crosby has four goals and five assists in the past eight games. ... Kunitz has a goal and five assists in a three-game scoring streak. ... Maatta has a goal in each of the past two games.... Duchene has a point in 15 of the past 18 games with 13 goals and 10 assists.

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