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Penguins' Malkin practices, might play in opener

by Wes Crosby / NHL.com

PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin practiced Tuesday for the first time since the Stanley Cup Playoffs and said there's a "50/50" chance he could play in the season opener Thursday against the Anaheim Ducks.

Malkin had not skated with the team due to an undisclosed injury sustained during his offseason workouts. With forward Chris Kunitz absent, Malkin skated on Sidney Crosby's left wing with Patric Hornqvist at right wing during line drills.

Kunitz was held out of practice due to an illness that Penguins coach Mike Johnston said he does not expect to linger. Forward Kasperi Kapanen, who also missed practice, returned to Finland to spend time with his family while the Penguins make a decision on their young players, Johnston said.

Malkin, who began skating on his own last Friday, said he felt good and was not tired after a practice that lasted nearly one hour and 20 minutes. He could not confirm if he will be able to play Thursday.

"It's not a big problem, but now it feels great to come back to skate with the team," Malkin said. "Of course I need a little bit more training. I'm glad to be back. I can't say [if he can play Thursday] right now because it's my first practice with the team, but it's 50/50. If I feel I'm in great shape, I'll come back. If not, maybe the second game."

The Penguins' second game is Saturday at the Toronto Maple Leafs (7 p.m. ET, NHLN-US, CBC).

The Penguins look substantially different than they did the last time Malkin joined them on the ice.

His linemates in the spring, James Neal and Jussi Jokinen, now are with the Nashville Predators and Florida Panthers, respectively. Hornqvist, who is expected to occupy Malkin's right wing, and forwards Nick Spaling, Steve Downie and Blake Comeau were added.

Malkin said he didn't foresee the changes, but thinks they could lead to Pittsburgh improving.

"Of course it's surprising," Malkin said. "It was a surprise to see my buddy [Neal] be traded. But it's hockey. We lost the last few years, and it's not good enough, and we get Patric and Downie, and they're good players and maybe it's better for us."

Hornqvist, who now occupies the locker to Malkin's right, had his first chance Tuesday to play alongside his potential new linemate. Neal and Hornqvist had similar seasons in 2013-14; Neal had 27 goals and 61 points, and Hornqvist had 22 goals and 53 points.

Hornqvist said he was impressed by his first look at Malkin in action.

"He's such a great guy," Hornqvist said. "He brings a lot of energy to the team and he's always happy and smiling. So it's nice to have him back."

Malkin didn't play center Tuesday, instead skating on the wing with Crosby and Hornqvist on one line and with Brandon Sutter and Pascal Dupuis on another. Johnston said Malkin could play right wing on Sutter's line Wednesday, but he sees a move to the wing as a temporary adjustment to get Malkin acclimated to being back on the ice.

"The combinations, I talked to him a little bit [Tuesday], whenever he does come back we might even put him on the wing, might even put him on the right wing," Johnston said. "We're trying to see what is the best fit right now. Beau Bennett was going to be a factor in what we do with our lines heading into training camp, but Beau's obviously out for a little while.

"Just to get [Malkin] back and I like the way Sutter's playing right now … He [Malkin] is a great center and we can use him at center, we know that. But getting him in with the best people right now, we may look at him playing the wing."

Johnston said Malkin sat out a few reps during battle drills during practice, but he was encouraged that Malkin participated in the full practice and thought he "looked pretty good for a guy who hasn't been on the ice for a month."

He said the Penguins will analyze how Malkin reacts Wednesday and will see if it's "Thursday, Saturday or into next week when he comes back full-time."

Tuesday was Malkin's first opportunity to become familiar with Pittsburgh's new coaching staff on the ice, but he did get a chance to get to know Johnston when the new Penguins coach visited him in Russia. Malkin said he appreciated the extra effort Johnston put in to meet him.

"They're good coaches. I have not worked with [Johnston] a lot because it's my first practice," Malkin said. "[The visit] was a surprise for me. He's here and then he comes to see me. It's good, the time with him. We had a couple dinners together … I was glad to meet him."

Johnston's system has been described as "up-tempo" and "intense" throughout training camp. Malkin said he is prepared to match that intensity.

"I like the system because we play a five-man zone, we use more [defense] and we watch a lot of video and a lot of meeting right now," Malkin said. "Of course it's tough because it's new coaches and new system but we just need a couple of games and I think the preseason was good. We won a couple of games and now players know what's going on.

"It's a good team."

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