Thoughts, musings and observations from the Pens' morning skate in Philly.
MALKIN "PROBABLE" FOR TONIGHT
Spirits were high at morning skate as Evgeni Malkin was full-contact for the session. Pens head coach Mike Sullivan said afterward that he is "probable" for tonight after missing the last five games with an upper-body injury.
"It'd be great to have him back," Sidney Crosby said. "He brings so much to the team. He's not an easy guy to replace."
Malkin centered a line with Phil Kessel and Nick Bjugstad, and practiced on the first power-play unit.
"He helps in so many areas. The power play is just one aspect of it," Sullivan said. "He's a dynamic offensive player. He's a threat most times when he goes over the boards, whether it's 5-on-4 or even-strength. He just makes our team that much harder to play against. I think when he's in our lineup, it creates matchup challenges for our opponents. He helps us in so many ways."
While Malkin is likely to play tonight, Sullivan said Zach Aston-Reese and Justin Schultz will not play. Aston-Reese, who has missed 12 games with an upper-body injury, also progressed to full contact today. Schultz, who has missed 51 games with a fractured left leg, has been practicing full-contact for the last week.
PENS SWITCH UP THE POWER PLAY
After giving up their league-leading 12th shorthanded goal against, the Pens tried a different look while working on the power play this morning, using two defensemen on both units: Kris Letang and Marcus Petterson were one pair, while Olli Maatta and Juuso Riikola were the other.
Letang and Pettersson started out with Crosby, Malkin and Patric Hornqvist, while Maatta and Riikola went with Kessel, Bjugstad and Jake Guentzel. After a few reps, Letang and Pettersson switched with Maatta and Riikola.
"I think sometimes when things don't go your way, you try to switch them up and try to spark something or get guys going a certain way," Letang said. "We're all aware of what has happened on the power play this year with a bunch of shorthanded goals, so by putting two guys with a defensive mindset out there we may not get caught on the wrong side. We'll see how it goes. But obviously I hope it's going to bring the best out of us."
Crosby said that going with two defensemen could help them simplify more, which is one of the keys to getting back on track.
"When you look at it, it's just getting back to those basic habits and fundamentals on the power play," Crosby said. "Not forcing things. Just getting pucks there, using that extra guy, whether it's near the net or to get pucks through to the net. That's got to be the mindset here."
The Flyers are surging, going unbeaten in their last 10 (9-0-1), while the Pens are slumping, going winless in their last four (0-3-1). While the Pens haven't been getting the results they need, Crosby feels like they are right there.
"I think when you look at those games, I think we easily could have won every single one of them," Crosby said. "That's just the kind of hockey it is this time of year. It's tight and you need that big play and we need to find a way to get that. That's where we're at. We know that. We're right in games. We just need to find a way to get on the right side of those."
Playing an emotional, intense game against their hated rival might be just what the doctor ordered.
"We have to get back on track, and there's not a better game to do it than tonight against the Flyers," Letang said. "It's going to be a game that brings the best out of all of us. It's going to be a lot of emotions. They're climbing and we want to stop the descent. It's going to be important to bring our best."
A big reason for Philadelphia's success has been the play of Carter Hart, who has been incredible for the Flyers since becoming the second-youngest goalie in franchise history to appear in a game when he made his NHL debut on Dec. 20 at 20 years, 27 days.
Hart has the opportunity to set a new NHL record for consecutive games won by a goaltender before his 21st birthday, as Hart has won eight straight coming into tonight.
This will be the Pens' first look at the rookie netminder. When asked what the approach is in a situation like that, Crosby said it's basically business as usual.
"We do video every game on goaltenders," Crosby said. "They do a great job of preparing us. I think as a shooter you don't want to overthink too much. You trust those good habits and trust your instincts out there. but if there's anything that sticks out, we're always made aware of it. But you always trust those basic things to work if you do them."
Here are the lines and D-pairs the Pens used this morning. Teddy Blueger was the odd man out.