Don’t look now, but the Pens are starting to get healthy at the right time.
The Penguins suffered an NHL-high 529 man-games lost due to injury this season, but centers Evgeni Malkin and Joe Vitale appear poised to return to the lineup soon, on the eve of their opening-round series with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Malkin and Vitale participated in their first full-contact practice with the team Tuesday afternoon at CONSOL Energy Center. Head coach Dan Bylsma wouldn’t disclose whether or not each player will play Wednesday night in Game 1.
“We’ll see how they are and react before we talk about what our lineup is going to be for tomorrow’s game,” Bylsma said.
Malkin, 27, missed the final 11 games of the season after suffering a foot injury on his first shift March 23 vs. St. Louis. Vitale, 28, was out the last 13 games of the year with a mid-body injury.
“It’s my first practice with the team and I feel great,” Malkin said. “We did a little bit of battle. But I’m not in pain and nothing is sore.”
Vitale was happy to finally be able to rejoin his teammates, instead of working one-on-one with strength and conditioning coach Mike Kadar in rehab.
“It’s fun to be back out with the guys, skating and mixing it up a little bit,” Vitale said. “I feel good. It’s just a good feeling to physically participate in practice.
"The one-on-one stuff is good, but there's nothing like being out there and getting into a rhythm."
Malkin and Vitale both participated in line rushes. Malkin centered a line with his usual linemates Jussi Jokinen and James Neal. Malkin also worked on the team’s top power-play unit at the left point. Vitale skated with Brian Gibbons and Craig Adams.
Malkin, a two-time NHL scoring champion and former NHL MVP, didn’t appear slowed in any manner during practice due to the foot injury.
“He’s a huge part of our hockey club and he looks good out there,” Neal said. “He looks like the normal ‘Geno’ that we’re used to seeing. That’s a good sign. Hopefully, he’s ready to go for (Game 1).”
Malkin finished second on the Penguins in points (72) and assists (49) despite playing in only 60 games. His 1.2 points per game were the second-best mark in the NHL (behind only teammate Sidney Crosby, 1.3).
“I worked hard last week on the ice with Mike Kadar,” Malkin said. “I feel in great shape. I hope it’s a short time to come back.”
If Malkin and Vitale return to the lineup the only remaining injured players on Pittsburgh’s roster would be Tomas Vokoun (blood clot), Marcel Goc (foot), Chris Conner (foot) and Pascal Dupuis (ACL/MCL).