PHOENIX – When the Pittsburgh Penguins hit the ice for practice this past Monday morning at the team’s Iceoplex at Southpointe practice facility, there was a positive vibe filling the air as everybody anticipated the returns of forward Jordan Staal
and defenseman Zbynek Michalek
on the three-game West Coast swing the team is currently enjoying.
Unfortunately, fate dealt the Penguins a crushing blow when Staal was hit with a puck and broke his right hand just minutes into practice, further shelving him an additional six weeks, but there has been a dose of good news, as Michalek has successfully returned to the lineup after missing nine games due to an upper-body injury.
Michalek’s return came just in time, as it allowed him to get back on the ice in advance of his Saturday night homecoming to Phoenix, where he spent the past five seasons playing for the Coyotes.
“I am excited, but at the same time, it’s probably going to be a weird feeling to be playing on the other side and seeing all the guys,” Michalek said. “It’s going to be interesting, but I’m looking forward to it. It should be a fun experience.”
Prior to signing with the Penguins just minutes into unrestricted free agency on July 1, Michalek had spent 393 of his 415 career games to that point with the Coyotes, as he called Phoenix home from 2005-06 through the end of last season.
It was the Coyotes who gave Michalek his first real opportunity to play in the National Hockey League, giving him a full-time spot as a shutdown defender after a couple of seasons toiling in the Minnesota Wild system.
Michalek said he will always maintain a soft spot in his heart for the Phoenix franchise because they took that chance on him, which is one of the reasons he has such a fond recollection of his time in the desert.
“I have great memories of Phoenix,” Michalek said. “It’s where I established myself in the league. They gave me a chance, so I appreciate that. I have a lot of good friends there.”RELATED ARTICLE: Penguins vs. Coyotes Game Preview
Last season, Michalek, along with fellow blueliners Ed Jovanovski and Keith Yandle, and goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, led a stingy Phoenix club to its first playoff berth in six seasons, as the Coyotes posted the third-best record in the Western Conference with 107 points.
This year, the shoe has fallen off the foot a bit for last season’s Cinderella team. Heading into Saturday night, the Coyotes had just 11 points, as their 4-5-3 record was the second-worst in the West.
Michalek said Phoenix’s struggles are more a result of guys being banged up and the three-game suspension Shane Doan had to serve rather than a lack of talent. He believes the Penguins will have their hands full with a Coyotes team that is now 100 percent.
“I still follow them because I have a lot of friends there,” Michalek said. “They have a good team and a great coaching staff, so I know they are going to do well. Maybe they are off to a slow start, but they had some injuries and Shane Doan served a suspension, so those things slowed them down a bit. I think they are healthy and playing better right now.”
Speaking of healthy, Michalek was pleased to report that he is feeling really good after playing nearly 20 minutes in each of his first two games back. Although he is not quite where he wants to be execution-wise, he expected that following a three-plus week layoff.
“I felt pretty good coming back,” Michalek said. “I know the timing and execution hasn’t been there. I know I can play much better, but I will improve. It’s a work in progress. I hadn’t played in over three weeks. It takes some time to get back in there. That’s to be expected when you don’t play for a long time.”