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Penguins pave way for returns with demotions to AHL

by Wes Crosby

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins reassigned three players to the American Hockey League Tuesday to seemingly make room for players returning from injury.

Defenseman Simon Despres and forwards Chuck Kobasew and Harry Zolnierczyk were reassigned to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League prior to Game 1 of Pittsburgh’s first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Wednesday at Consol Energy Center (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, FS-O, ROOT).

The departures would allow for the return of forwards Evgeni Malkin and Joe Vitale.

“Obviously, it’s been a long year with a lot of different guys,” Vitale said. “But it’s a good feeling, obviously to see [Malkin] out there and [defenseman Paul Martin] and just see those faces and Kris [Letang]. Just to see those faces and the energy they bring, the energy on the ice is kind of contagious throughout the whole locker room, so it’s something special and we’re obviously thankful to have those guys back.”

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said Pittsburgh will see how Malkin and Vitale respond to practice before determining whether either will play Wednesday. Bylsma said Despres could return to Pittsburgh and play a role in a playoff run, although he will not play in Game 1.

Forward Marcel Goc, who missed the final nine games of the regular season with a lower-body injury, did not participate in practice. Pittsburgh announced before its game against the Blue Jackets on March 28 that Goc was expected to miss three weeks.

Bylsma did not provide an update on Goc’s status other than saying he is working out.

Goc had two assists in his 12 games after Pittsburgh acquired him from the Florida Panthers at the 2014 NHL Trade Deadline. He was primarily used as the Penguins’ fourth-line center before his injury, but did spend time on either wing alongside forward Brandon Sutter on the third line.

Vitale practiced on the fourth line Tuesday, centering forwards Brian Gibbons and Craig Adams. The combination of Vitale and Gibbons could be an attempt to introduce speed into Pittsburgh’s bottom-six, which was absent through much of the regular season.

Sutter had a slight setback this season after a productive first season in Pittsburgh primarily due to a lack of chemistry on its bottom two lines. He said he doesn’t expect the same issue to arise during the postseason.

“It’s been a long time since we’ve had everyone back,” Sutter said. “So, it’s nice to have the full lineup in and, obviously, there are still a few guys who are injured, but every team has got that right now. Columbus has the same issues, so we’re lucky right now that we have most of the guys in. So, hopefully we can get a good start here.”

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