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Malkin cleared to play, will return vs. Lightning

by Chris Adamski

PITTSBURGH -- Monday night's game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning already featured the National Hockey League's two leading scorers.

How about throwing in the reigning League scoring champion as a somewhat surprising addition?

Evgeni Malkin will return to the Penguins' lineup after missing the past four games due to a concussion, adding more star power to a matchup that already included Sidney Crosby and Steven Stamkos.

"He's been a long time going through protocol and going through the steps," Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said after the morning skate Monday. "It's been seven full days he's felt good for now. ??? He's seen doctors and gone through the regiment and finished all those yesterday."

Malkin has been symptom-free since the day after he collided into the boards behind the Florida Panthers' net during the third period of a Feb. 22 game. The only concussion symptom he experienced was short-term memory loss, according to the team.

The 26-year-old did not accompany the Penguins on their three-game road trip last week, but skated on his own twice and also worked out off the ice other days. He was cleared for contact Sunday, and practiced with most of his teammates that day. Finally, Malkin passed an imPACT test, in accordance with NHL policy.

"Clearly follow protocol carefully and taking every precaution possible," Bylsma said. "He's worked out hard on and off the ice for part of those six days and had full contact and was full-go in practice, so we're not talking about gut feelings and what we feel."

Malkin was back with normal linemate James Neal for the morning skate, with Matt Cooke on his left wing. Malkin, who has four goals and 17 assists in 18 games this season, also worked on the Penguins' top power-play unit.

The first game Malkin missed was a 5-3 Penguins win over Tampa Bay on Feb. 24. The Lightning, who are back in Pittsburgh eight days later, have been torched by Malkin in recent years. He had eight goals and three assists in four games against Tampa Bay last season, and has 14 goals in 22 career games against the Lightning -- the second-most goals he has against any non-Atlantic Division opponent.

"He's very difficult to play against because he's like (New York Rangers star Rick Nash)," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said. "You're systems are fine, everybody's in the right position -- and all of a sudden he just manhandles your guy and steps on them and goes by them.

"Every team lives that; he's very difficult to play against because he can beat you one-on-one. That puts a major dent in your plans. And he's got the skill and we've had major problems playing against him."

Malkin, who won the 2008-09 and 2011-12 Art Ross trophies, said after practice Sunday that he might need a few more practices before returning to game action. But it was clear both in that workout and during the morning skate Monday that he was holding nothing back in terms of the vigor and speed he used. Teammates also didn't shy away from making contact with him like they would for any other practice.

Malkin was not made available for comment after the Monday skate.

"It doesn't really change much in our preparation for the game, but obviously it's a different look on their power play and he's one of the best players in the game," Stamkos said. "So we're going to have to be aware when not only Sid's on the ice, but him, and now him playing back with Neal and the chemistry they had before he went down. So they have a lot of dangerous players, and we have to be aware of that."

To make room for Malkin to come off injured reserve and back onto the active roster, the team reportedly placed winger Zach Boychuk on waivers. Boychuk had no points in eight games since being claimed off waivers from the Carolina Hurricanes on Jan. 31. He had been a healthy scratch the past eight games.

Rookie Beau Bennett was returned to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League. The 2011 first-round pick had a goal and two assists -- all coming since Malkin went down -- in eight games since his recall.

The Penguins (14-8-0) split four games without Malkin but remained atop the Atlantic Division with 28 points.

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