Here are the 3 biggest takeaways from the Pens' Wednesday afternoon practice at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex.
1. Malkin a game-time decision
Evgeni Malkin progressed to being a full participant in practice and is a possibility to return to the lineup Thursday against the Detroit Red Wings. Pens head coach Mike Sullivan said he will be a game-time decision.
"I hope tomorrow I wake up and feel great and I'm ready to play," said Malkin, who has missed the last eight games with an upper-body injury suffered on March 16 versus St. Louis.
When Malkin joined team practice for the first time on Saturday wearing a red no-contact jersey, Pittsburgh had four regular-season games remaining at the time.
Malkin said while he couldn't play in all of them, he hoped to return for one or two. With two games left (Thursday versus Detroit and Saturday versus NY Rangers), that hasn't changed.
"Like I told you a week ago, I will try to play the last two games," Malkin said. "Practice with the team today and we'll see how I feel tomorrow. I feel like every day is better and I want to come back and start to play."
In addition to taking contact from Pens assistant coach Mark Recchi, Malkin did line rushes with Bryan Rust and Phil Kessel and practiced with the top power-play unit - all positive signs pointing to a return.
"He's obviously such an important part of this team and does so much," Rust said. "He's hard to replace. Any time you get a player like that back, it gives everyone else a boost of energy too."
The Pens have yet to clinch a playoff berth. With their magic number being two, they can do so with a win in either one of their final two games. That being said, Malkin doesn't feel any pressure to return quicker than he normally would because of the circumstance.
"It's not like if I play we win the game," Malkin said. "It's not like that. We play against a good team and of course we want to win tomorrow. It feels so much better when you're in playoffs. We still have a couple more games. We understand it's huge games for us and we understand we need to win both."
2. Letang progressing
Another positive development on the injury front was that Kris Letang joined team practice in a non-contact fashion. Sullivan said he remains day-to-day.
"I feel comfortable," Letang said. "I was out there with the team. Being part of the power play, 6-on-5 stuff we worked on, I felt pretty good."
Like Malkin, Letang said he can't bow under any pressure to return quicker than he normally would because of the circumstance.
"When I'm ready I'll be ready. At the end of the day that's what it is," he said. "I'm going to go out there when I feel I'm ready to go, when I'm 100 percent. If I play one (game), I play one. If I play two, I play two. Who knows?
"I talk with the doctor. We make decisions based on what's intelligent. It's not based on if we do this, if we do that. We go by my health first and that's it."
Letang has missed the last four games and 15 of the last 18 with an upper-body injury. He returned for three straight games on the Pens' recent road trip - March 19 at Carolina, March 21 at Nashville and March 23 at Dallas - but decided afterward that he needed more time to recover.
"I didn't feel that comfortable after those games," he said. "I thought taking a little bit more time to get better was a better idea."
The Pens coaching staff tried a bunch of different line combinations in Tuesday's 4-1 loss in Detroit to try and generate a spark. Here are the combinations they settled into for Wednesday's practice with Malkin now in the mix…
"(Rust) has played there in the past," Sullivan said of putting him with Malkin and Kessel. "That type of a skillset meshes well with Geno and his line. He's got a lot of foot speed. He can get in on the forecheck. He forces turnovers. If they get caught in the offensive zone he can catch the rush usually and help them defensively. He has a conscientious game away from the puck. All of those things in our experience, those attributes have been beneficial to Geno's line."