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Malkin practices, hopes to return against Rangers

Pittsburgh center has been out since March 11 with upper-body injury

by Wes Crosby / Correspondent

PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin practiced for the first time in more than a month Thursday and hopes to return during the Eastern Conference First Round series against the New York Rangers. 

After skating before each of Pittsburgh's two practices leading to its 5-2 win against the Rangers in Game 1 on Wednesday, Malkin was the second player on the ice for the Penguins' optional practice Thursday. 

Malkin has not played since March 11, when he sustained an upper-body injury after earning two assists against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

"I'm glad I got to skate with the team today," Malkin said. "Practice was optional, but it feels nice to skate with the team … Oh yeah, I think [he could return before the end of the series]. I'll try to [return] as soon as possible, but it's only been one game and I started to skate with team, I think tomorrow. I don't know when, but as soon as possible."

Video: Hear what Malkin had to say after practice today

Game 2 between the Penguins and Rangers will take place at Consol Energy Center on Saturday (3 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).

The original prognosis had Malkin missing six-to-eight weeks, and Friday will mark the end of the fifth week since his time of injury. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who practiced after missing a sixth consecutive game with a concussion Wednesday, skated to the crease in the zone Malkin occupied after joining the session.

Malkin spent roughly five minutes shooting slap shots on Fleury, with increasing intensity, before the practice officially began. Malkin said he is pleased with his conditioning, but has a few areas to work on before returning.

"I'm still working," Malkin said. "[My shot] isn't strong enough, but everyday it's better."

Before his injury, Malkin was Pittsburgh's most consistent offensive threat with 27 goals and 58 points. He had 28 points and 10 goals in his past 22 games and hadn't failed to score at least one point in consecutive games since Dec. 26 and 27.

"Geno had a great day," coach Mike Sullivan said. "I thought he looked really strong. It's the first time that he joined the rest of the team, as far as some of the drills. He was involved in contact and I thought he looked really strong. He's been working all along here on his conditioning and making sure he stays with that, and I think that's really going to help him as far as expediting his return.

Sullivan would like to see Malkin return during this series.

"I don't really have a timeline, but certainly that's our hope," Sullivan said. "We think, obviously he's a difference maker. He's an elite player. We're a better team when he's in our lineup, and we'll put him in our lineup when all of us that are involved with his health and where he's at physically believe that we can put him in a position to be successful and he can help us win."

Video: Hear what Fleury had to say after practice today

Fleury participated in Pittsburgh's two previous practices and its Wednesday morning skate before goalie Jeff Zatkoff made his Stanley Cup Playoffs debut in Game 1. Rookie goalie Matthew Murray remains day-to-day after not practicing since sustaining an upper-body injury late in the first period against the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday.

Zatkoff did not practice Thursday after making 35 saves for his first playoff win. He last started on Feb. 20 and lost nine of his previous 11 appearances. 

Fleury enjoyed watching Zatkoff's performance while continuing to recover.

"It's still a work in progress, I think. I think it's moving along," Fleury said. "[Zatkoff] was awesome. I'm very happy for him. He's such a great teammate. He's been that all year and been in tough situations."

Injured forwards Bryan Rust (lower body) and Beau Bennett (undisclosed) also practiced Thursday. Because of several injuries, Sullivan decided to dress seven defensemen in Game 1 while scratching forward Tom Sestito.

Fleury, Rust and Bennett remain day-to-day.

"We trust our medical staff and we think they do a great job as far as advising us and making sure that we have the interest of the health of our athletes first and foremost," Sullivan said. "The priority of this organization will continue to be that."

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