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Malkin back at Penguins practice, could play Game 1

by Wes Crosby

PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin returned to practice Tuesday after missing the final 11 games of the regular season.

Malkin sustained a foot injury during his first shift in Pittsburgh's 1-0 loss to the St. Louis Blues on March 23. He had skated on his own prior to practices and game-day skates recently, and participated in Pittsburgh's morning skate Sunday, but Tuesday marked his official return to practice.

He said he felt good during the practice, but stopped short of saying he would play in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC). In 11 games without Malkin, the Penguins went 5-4-2 averaging 2.27 goals per game during regulation.

Evgeni Malkin
Evgeni Malkin
Center - PIT
GOALS: 23 | ASST: 49 | PTS: 72
SOG: 191 | +/-: 10
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said Pittsburgh will see how Malkin responds to practice before determining its lineup for Wednesday. Bylsma said having Malkin in the lineup could force the opposition to change its strategy.

"Teams change matchup and [defense] pairings in particular depending on whether they're home or away, in particular, or how they perceive the way the lines to be playing," Bylsma said. "It changes fairly often. I think in terms of the playoffs, you probably saw it in the biggest regard in '09 in the third series [the Eastern Conference Final against the Carolina Hurricanes] was probably the biggest case of that."

Malkin scored six goals and nine points during Pittsburgh's four-game sweep of Carolina on his way to winning the 2009 Conn Smythe Trophy.

Linemate Jussi Jokinen said he thought Tuesday was one of the Pittsburgh's more energetic practices in some time, and some of that had to do with Malkin's intensity.

"I think there was a lot of jump. Everyone was flying out there and was having a lot of fun, and you could sense the playoffs are coming," Jokinen said. "I think he's just having fun. He's skating really fast. I think he was one of the fastest players out there, and you can just tell that he looks ready and he looks like he's hungry to start playing again.

He also said he doesn't expect Malkin to need much time to regain his form.

"It seems like every time he's come back from an injury, he's played really well," Jokinen said. "I think he's had a lot of injuries throughout his career and every time he's come back, he's played really well, so we hope that's going to happen again."

Jokinen, who has been primarily used as the second-line left wing this season, filled Malkin's role as second-line center during his absence. Malkin returned to his normal position Tuesday between Jokinen and forward James Neal. Malkin also took his usual spot at the point on the Penguins' top power-play unit.

Jokinen was brought in by Pittsburgh late in the 2012-13 season to fill a void caused by an injury to forward Sidney Crosby. Crosby, who missed the last 12 games of last season with a broken jaw, dealt with a situation similar to the one Malkin is experiencing.

"There's only so much you can do to get ready and you do everything you can, but I think until you get out there and get your feet under you and play a couple games, it's not going to feel as comfortable as maybe you'd like it to," Crosby said. "Other than that, I just think you try to keep it simple and make sure you're stopping and doing the little things and everything else kind of takes care of itself.

"I think he's proven he can come back pretty strong, so I'm sure he'll adjust pretty quickly.

Despite missing 22 games, Malkin finished the season second on Pittsburgh with 72 points, 32 behind Crosby, the NHL scoring champion. Malkin scored 23 goals centering a line that accounted for nearly 30 percent of the Penguins' 241 goals.

Neal was third on the Penguins with 27 goals, most of which came playing alongside Malkin, and said he was pleased to see his linemate return to the ice.

"It's good to see him back. He's skating well and it looks like he's back to his old self," Neal said. "He's been a big part of our line, with myself and [Jokinen], so he's going to be a big boost for our club, and getting healthy at the right time is big and going into the playoffs, it just makes it that much more exciting with everybody coming back in the lineup."

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