NEWARK, N.J. -- Evgeni Malkin said he is very close to returning to the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup after participating in an optional morning skate Thursday at Prudential Center, where the Penguins will play the New Jersey Devils (7 p.m. ET; SN360, MSG+, ROOT, NHL.TV).
The forward hasn't played since March 15, when he sustained an upper-body injury against the Philadelphia Flyers.
"I'm trying to do my best and every day feels better," said Malkin, who has 72 points (33 goals, 39 assits) in 62 games this season.
Following the game against New Jersey, the Penguins will have two games remaining in the regular season, at the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday and at the New York Rangers on Sunday.
Pittsburgh will open the Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Eastern Conference First Round. The Penguins can lock up home-ice advantage in the series with a win against the Devils combined with a loss by the Blue Jackets against the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday.
"If I feel I can play the last game or the last two I will," said Malkin, who has missed 11 straight games. "If not, I'm ready for playoffs."
Last season, Malkin missed the final 15 games of the regular season and Game 1 of the first round against the New York Rangers with an upper-body injury.
He returned in Game 2 and didn't miss another game in the Penguins' run to the Stanley Cup championship.
"We would like him to be at a 100 percent so that he's ready to play, and so we've taken a cautious approach with him," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "I think he's played a fair amount of games this year. We're not overly concerned that he's got to knock the rust off so to speak. We feel pretty strongly that he can step right in and be an impact player for us."
Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta also skated Thursday and is close to returning to the lineup. Maatta will miss his 24th game with a hand injury that required surgery.
Defenseman Trevor Daley, who has missed 20 games with a knee injury, is a game-time decision. On Wednesday, the Penguins announced defenseman Kris Letang will miss the entire postseason because of a herniated disk in his neck that requires surgery.
"We'd like to get all of our guys in games if it's possible," Sullivan said. "We'd like to get [Malkin] in games if it's possible. But having said that, we also are trying to take a prudent approach with each guy that we have. When we feel strongly that they're ready for game action, they'll go in the lineup. That's been the approach we've taken with all of our guys here that are coming back off their injuries, and we'll continue to do that with each guy."