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Malkin could return for Penguins' next game

Center sidelined since March 16 with upper-body injury

by Wes Crosby / NHL.com Correspondent

CRANBERRY, Pa. -- Evgeni Malkin will be a game-time decision for the Pittsburgh Penguins when they host the Detroit Red Wings at PPG Paints Arena on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; ATTSN-PT, FS-D, NHL.TV).

"I told you like a week ago, I would try to play the last two games," Malkin said. "Nothing's changed. ... I feel like every day is better. I want [to come] back."

The center took full contact in practice Wednesday for the first time since sustaining an upper-body injury against the St. Louis Blues on March 16. He skated at second-line center during line rushes with left wing Bryan Rust and right wing Phil Kessel.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said Malkin, who has missed eight games, could return Thursday. Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang, who has missed four games with an upper-body injury, remain day to day.

"We'll see tomorrow," Malkin said. "If I feel fine, I'll have a chance to play. I'll be ready."

The Penguins (43-26-11), who are 4-2-2 without Malkin, are in third place in the Metropolitan Division, two points behind the New York Islanders and two ahead of Carolina Hurricanes with two regular-season games remaining. Carolina holds the first wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference.

Video: WSH@PIT: Malkin gets 1,000th point on Kessel's PPG

Pittsburgh is three points ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets and Montreal Canadiens, who are tied in points for the second wild card; Columbus has three more regulation/overtime wins than Montreal.

The Penguins finish the regular season at home against the New York Rangers on Saturday.

"It's not like if I play, we win the game," Malkin said. "It's not like that. We play against a good team [Thursday]. Of course we want to win tomorrow and feel so much better, being in the playoffs. We still have a couple more games. We understand [they're] huge games for us. We understand we need to win both.

"We see how Montreal and Columbus play. ... We want to only focus on what's going on in our group."

Malkin is fourth on the Penguins in scoring with 71 points (21 goals, 50 assists) in 66 games, behind center Sidney Crosby (95 points; 33 goals, 62 assists), Kessel (79 points; 25 goals, 54 assists) and forward Jake Guentzel (73 points; 38 goals, 35 assists). Malkin leads Pittsburgh with 89 penalty minutes and his minus-24 rating is worst on the Penguins roster.

Letang, who said he's unsure if he would be ready for the start of the playoffs if the Penguins clinch a berth, practiced in a no-contact jersey for the first time since he was injured against the Dallas Stars on March 23. He skated on a fourth defense pair with forward Adam Johnson and rotated with defenseman Justin Schultz on the top power-play unit.

"We kind of go day by day," Letang said. "I talk with the doctors. We make the decisions based on what's intelligent. ... We go by my health first. That's it."

Defenseman Brian Dumoulin, Letang's partner on the top defense pair, did not practice because of a lower-body injury; he is also day to day.

Malkin also worked on the No. 1 power play unit with forward Patric Hornqivst, Crosby and Kessel. He is third on the Penguins with 26 power-play points (nine goals, 17 assists). 

Crosby, who has five assists during a 10-game goal drought, said he's looking forward to Malkin and Letang returning. 

"It would be huge," Crosby said. "You always get a boost when guys get back in the lineup, especially this time of year. The games are so important. It would be huge to get them back."

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