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Atlantic: Some important help on the way for Penguins

by Chuck Gormley

Marc-Andre Fleury and Sidney Crosby are close to returning to the Penguins. Watch Penguins highlights
It might not be today or tomorrow, but help is on the way in Pittsburgh.

The masked man and caped crusader are nearing a return to the Steel City and it might be just in the nick of time.

While Marc-Andre Fleury was stopping nearly every puck he faced in a rehab assignment with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, Sidney Crosby was exchanging his yellow “don’t hit me” practice jersey for an “I’m almost ready to play” contact jersey. They’d be a sight for sore eyes in Pittsburgh, where some of the luster of a 6-2-2 run without Crosby in the lineup was rubbed off by consecutive losses to the Bruins and Hurricanes.

So how close is “Sid The Kid” from returning?

“(It was) kind of a step to see how it went,” Crosby said Saturday after his first full-contact practice since suffering a high ankle sprain four weeks ago. “It went pretty good. It’s still something we've got to work through a bit.”

Remember, Crosby was told he’d miss 6-8 weeks with his high ankle sprain. But this guy was skating after three weeks and has been cleared for contact after four. And with every upcoming game having a major impact on the Eastern Conference playoff seedings, it might take a team of doctors to keep Crosby from beating the initial six-week prognosis.

Fleury, meanwhile, allowed just two goals in a pair of rehab starts for the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Penguins of the American Hockey League and is looking like he could be days away from facing NHL opponents for the first time since Dec. 6 when he suffered a high ankle sprain.

“I’m still rusty,” Fleury said. “I feel like I’m all over the place. A little touch maybe I don’t have back yet. But I think (my ankle) is feeling better than last game.”

The plan for Fleury is to get another start or two for the Baby Pens, then return to the Penguins for game action.

Of course, the play of Ty Conklin will make it a difficult choice for coach Michel Therrien once Fleury returns. Since replacing Fleury, Conklin has gone 14-4-3 with an NHL-leading .930 save percentage entering the weekend. Since Dec. 20, he’s played in all but four of the Penguins’ 29 games.

But his is not the only story of resilience in Pittsburgh, where everyone from Evgeni Malkin to Kristopher Letang has stepped up to fill the void left by injuries.

Malkin has been nearly unstoppable since Crosby went down, entering the weekend with 10 goals and 13 assists in the 12 games sans Sid. Malkin carried a seven-game point streak into the Penguins’ game against Buffalo Sunday night and had six goals and 11 assists during that stretch. Veteran sniper Petr Sykora has been almost as dominant. He entered the weekend with at least a point in 10 of his last 11 games and had five goals and 14 points in the first 11 games the team played without Crosby.

But it’s been a new hero every night all season in Pittsburgh. When center Maxime Talbot was injured early this season, Tyler Kennedy stepped in and played well enough to be selected for the YoungStars Game during All-Star Weekend. When Kennedy was stricken with mononucleosis, Kris Beech was claimed off waivers and filled the void.

When fourth-line center Adam Hall went down with a groin pull, Jeff Taffe stepped up as a shut-down center.

When it was learned defenseman Mark Eaton would miss the remainder of the season with a torn ACL, Letang emerged as the Penguins’ second-leading point producer on the blue line with four goals and 13 points in 40 games.

Now, it’s center Erik Christensen (shoulder), Gary Roberts (broken leg) and Beech (broken wrist) who are on infirmary row and the injuries are beginning to take their toll.

"We're missing a lot of players, and we knew that eventually down the road, it was going to catch up to us," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. "I think the last two games have been tough, and we lost two other players. It's tough with all the injuries we've got. We just have to regroup."

Getting back their masked man and caped crusader might be the perfect antidote for the resilient but wobbly Pens.


Around the Atlantic -- The Rangers avoided the embarrassment of going winless against the Western Conference this season when they beat the San Jose Sharks Sunday. They finish the season with a 1-7-2 mark against the West. Among Atlantic Division teams, the Penguins own the best record against the West (8-1-0). … Rangers C Chris Drury enters this week with seven goals in his last nine games, while RW Jaromir Jagr has gone 11 games without a goal. … The Islanders won their third-straight game Saturday after a seven-game losing streak, which might curtail trade talks that have heated up in recent weeks. If the Isles win a couple more this week GM Garth Snow might hold onto the hand he dealt himself over the summer. A couple losses and doors might be open for trade business. The Isles have eight players -- forwards Miroslav Satan, Mike Comrie, Ruslan Fedotenko, Trent Hunter, Joe Vasicek and Chris Simon, defenseman Bryan Berard and backup goalie Wade Dubielewicz -- in the final year of their contracts. Fedotenko and Comrie have expressed a desire to stay on Long Island, but Satan’s silence may speak volumes. … The Flyers could be active in the trade market simply because they’re running out of healthy bodies. With LW Simon Gagne sidelined indefinitely with a concussion, the Flyers learned they’ll be without RW Joffrey Lupul indefinitely with a high ankle sprain and without rookie RW Steve Downie indefinitely with a concussion. The Flyers expect to know by Tuesday the status of Peter Forsberg, who reportedly is listening to offers by the Minnesota Wild. The Flyers entered Sunday’s action with a six-game losing streak, tying their worst stretch of the season. … A pair of wins over the Ottawa Senators vaulted the Devils to within two points of the Eastern Conference lead. … G Martin Brodeur played his 18th straight game Saturday nigh and notched his 31st win of the season. … LW “Iron Sergei” Brylin has now played in 305 straight games. That’s only good for fourth on the Devils’ all-time list. (No, Martin Brodeur is not in the top three). The club record for consecutive games played is 388, held by D Ken Daneyko from Nov. 4, 1989 to March 29, 1994.


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