LIGHTNING (24-11-4) at PENGUINS (23-9-5)
TV: TVA SPORTS, SUN, ROOT
PITTSBURGH -- A physical presence will return to the Pittsburgh Penguins in time to face the team they are chasing in the Eastern Conference.
Forward Steve Downie, who has missed Pittsburgh's past five games with the mumps, will play against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Consol Energy Center on Friday after taking part in a second consecutive morning skate. Downie skated the morning of the Penguins' 2-1 win against the Carolina Hurricanes on Wednesday.
Penguins coach Mike Johnston said Downie was not physically prepared to return to game action after the Wednesday skate, although he was close. Johnston confirmed Downie will play against Tampa Bay.
"It's a good time for us to get him back in the lineup," Johnston said. "Certainly his mumps situation, for different players it affects you different ways, and for him it really knocked him down for several days."
Downie's return could come at an opportune time for Pittsburgh, after it announced the acquisition of forward David Perron from the Edmonton Oilers on Friday for forward Rob Klinkhammer and a first-round pick in the 2015 NHL Draft. Klinkhammer was slated to play against Tampa Bay, but will most likely be replaced by forward Jayson Megna.
Downie could provide much-needed grit against one of the NHL's more explosive offenses. He leads the Penguins with 135 penalty minutes, 79 more than forward Evgeni Malkin.
The former Lightning forward can bolster the Penguins struggling offense, which has failed to score more than two goals in three consecutive games. Downie is fifth on Pittsburgh with 17 points and has five goals while primarily playing on its third line.
The Penguins will start goalie Thomas Greiss, who has not manned Pittsburgh's net since Dec. 13 because of the mumps. Greiss, who is 3-2-2 with a 2.52 goals-against average and .919 save percentage, will be tested against the NHL's second-ranked offense, which is averaging 3.23 goals per game.
The Lightning and Penguins have gone in opposite directions over the past 11 days, starting with Tampa Bay's 4-3 win against Pittsburgh on Dec. 23.
The Penguins have lost four of their past five games, with four of the five decided by one goal. Tampa Bay experienced a similar difficult stretch in the middle of December, losing six of eight from Dec. 6-20, but has since strung together four consecutive wins, winning three of the four by one goal.
Lightning coach Jon Cooper said that despite their recent struggles, the Penguins remain one of the more formidable teams in the NHL.
"This is a big test. This is a top-flight team in the League," Cooper said. "I think both teams know each other a little bit now that we've played each other in the last two weeks. But they're a little bit of a bigger challenge because now their lineup is pretty much their lineup."
Here are the projected lineups:
Jonathan Drouin – Steven Stamkos – Cedric Paquette
Ondrej Palat – Tyler Johnson – Nikita Kucherov
Alex Killorn – Valtteri Filppula – Ryan Callahan
Brenden Morrow – Brian Boyle – Brett Connolly
Victor Hedman – Andrej Sustr
Matthew Carle – Anton Stralman
Mark Barberio – Nikita Nesterov
Scratched: J.T. Brown
Injured: Jason Garrison (undisclosed), Radko Gudas (lower body)
Evgeni Malkin – Sidney Crosby – Bryan Rust
Chris Kunitz – Brandon Sutter – Beau Bennett
Nick Spaling – Marcel Goc – Steve Downie
Bobby Farnham – Andrew Ebbett – Jayson Megna
Christian Ehrhoff – Kris Letang
Rob Scuderi – Robert Bortuzzo
Brian Dumoulin – Simon Despres
Scratched: Scott Harrington, Derrick Pouliot
Injured: Patric Hornqvist (upper body), Blake Comeau (upper body), Paul Martin (undisclosed), Pascal Dupuis (blood clot), Olli Maatta (upper body), Scott Wilson (leg), Zach Sill (upper body)
Status report: Malkin and Letang, who did not participate in Pittsburgh's Thursday practice, were present at its Friday morning skate. Malkin got into an altercation with forward Craig Adams at the end of the optional skate, which Johnston said is being addressed. … Gudas, who has missed four games and is listed as day-to-day, said he hopes he will be in the lineup Friday.
Who's hot: Kunitz scored one of Pittsburgh's two goals in its 2-1 win against the Carolina Hurricanes on Wednesday. He has scored at least one point in three of his past four games. … Kucherov scored two goals and three points against the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday. He has had two three-point efforts in his past four games, the other coming against the Penguins on Dec. 23.