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Penguins energized as Neal skates with team

by Tal Pinchevsky

NEW YORK -- The Pittsburgh Penguins enjoyed some extra energy during their pregame skate Wednesday heading into a divisional matchup against the rival New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN2, RDS2). Some of that extra jump came courtesy of a standout player rejoining the team following a long absence.

All-Star forward James Neal skated in part of the morning skate, mostly participating in conditioning drills. Neal hasn't played since Oct. 3, when he skated 3:49 against the New Jersey Devils and left with an upper-body injury.

Neal, along with injured forward Beau Bennett, stayed on the ice after practice to continue conditioning work, with Neal joking as he walked to the Penguins locker room that he needed a stretcher following the intense workout.

Bennett, out since Oct. 12 due to a lower-body injury, could be back as soon as the weekend; there remains no timetable for Neal's return.

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma acknowledged the mere presence of these players trying to work their way back was uplifting.

"James in particular," Bylsma said. "We've missed both those guys for extended periods of times. Having James on the ice, even in small quantities this morning, there was a lot of jump in a lot of guys' step seeing James out there."

Forwad Chris Kunitz also practiced with the Penguins and is considered a game-time decision due to a lower-body injury. Marc-Andre Fleury will start in net.

Despite numerous injuries so far this season to key contributors Neal, Kris Letang, Rob Scuderi and Tomas Vokoun, there was a sense in the room the team was slowly starting to get healthy.

"It's fun. We haven't had a healthy lineup so far. So to have James practicing and Beau practicing with us today is good to see," said Letang, who missed the first nine games of the season with a lower-body injury. "It is just something you can chat about. It's fun to see them back."

The Rangers have their own injured All-Star to contend with. Forward Rick Nash has not played since sustaining a head injury Oct. 8 against the San Jose Sharks. There were no updates on his condition, but center Dominic Moore took part in the optional skate. He remains out with a strained oblique muscle and was not sure if he would travel with the team for their road game Thursday against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

"It's just one of those spots where everything you do uses that spot. You just have to gradually ramp it up," Moore said of his injury. "Once it's at a spot where it can tolerate the demands of playing, then you know you're good to go."

There will be one addition to the Rangers lineup: forward J.T. Miller returns after being a healthy scratch Monday against the Anaheim Ducks. The return for the 20-year-old couldn't have come at a better time. The 2011 first-round pick (No. 15) grew up near Pittsburgh idolizing the Penguins, particularly star players Jaromir Jagr and Alex Kovalev. He'll now get a chance to compete against his childhood favorites Wednesday before playing Thursday in Columbus, less than 200 miles from his hometown of East Palestine, Ohio.

"You've got to believe that he is real excited and motivated to be in the NHL. Real excited and motivated to stay in the NHL and become a regular contributor to a good team," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. "If [Wednesday] he gets a little more excited because he's playing Pittsburgh, that would be great for us."

Henrik Lundqvist will start for the Rangers and Brandon Mashinter will be a healthy scratch after playing Monday.

Here are the projected lineups for the Penguins and Rangers:


Pascal Dupuis - Sidney Crosby - Chris Kunitz

Jayson Megna - Evgeni Malkin - Jussi Jokinen

Craig Adams - Brandon Sutter - Tanner Glass

Dustin Jeffrey - Joe Vitale - Deryk Engelland

Paul Martin - Brooks Orpik

Kris Letang - Matt Niskanen

Olli Maatta - Robert Bortuzzo

Marc-Andre Fleury

Jeff Zatkoff

Scratched: Matt D'Agostini

Injured: Rob Scuderi (ankle), James Neal (upper body), Beau Bennett (lower body), Tomas Vokoun (blood clot), Chuck Kobasew (lower body)


Mats Zuccarello - Derek Stepan - Chris Kreider

Carl Hagelin - Brad Richards - Benoit Pouliot

Ryan Callahan - Derick Brassard - Brian Boyle

Derek Dorsett - J.T. Miller - Taylor Pyatt

Dan Girardi - Ryan McDonagh

Anton Stralman - Marc Staal

Michael Del Zotto - John Moore

Henrik Lundqvist

Cam Talbot

Scratched: Brandon Mashinter, Justin Falk

Injured: Rick Nash (head), Dominic Moore (oblique)

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