After today’s practice at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex heading into Game 2 of their First Round series against the New York Rangers (where Pittsburgh holds a 1-0 lead), head coach Mike Sullivan called it a “very encouraging day.”
That’s because Evgeni Malkin (upper body) and Bryan Rust (lower body) joined full team practice after taking part in an optional skate on Thursday, and Marc-Andre Fleury (concussion) was on the ice as well.
“We’ve got guys participating,” Sullivan said. “They all had strong practices. Their status is still day-to-day. But it’s very encouraging.”
The Pens used the following trios during rushes: Kunitz-Crosby-Hornqvist, Sheary-Malkin-Rust, Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel, Kuhnhackl-Cullen-Fehr.
Afterward, Sullivan dismissed the idea that working Malkin back in would present a lineup problem for him.
“Obviously ‘Geno’ is an elite player,” Sullivan said. “He makes us a better hockey team when he’s in our lineup. He’s one of probably a few players in the world that can change the outcome of a game single-handedly. So when he’s in our lineup, we’re certainly a better team. From my standpoint, it just gives our coaching staff more flexibility and more options.”
The players feel the same way.
“You can’t replace Geno,” Crosby said. “Whenever he comes back we’ll definitely be happy to have him in there, and we’ll make sure we keep gaining momentum and keep trying to play well.”
Malkin, who said he would be a game-time decision for Saturday’s Game 2, doesn’t care where the coach puts him as long as he’s in.
“I want to play,” Malkin said. “It’s a good time to be back. I’m excited to play in a short time. We have four good lines. It doesn’t matter which line I play on.”
We talked to him, Rust and Fleury after practice…here’s a breakdown of what they had to say.MALKIN
In addition to centering Sheary and Rust during rushes, Malkin also practiced on the first power-play unit with Kris Letang, Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist – all positive indications.
“I’m very happy,” said Malkin, who missed 25 of the Pens’ final 33 games in the regular-season (including the final 15) and also did not play in Game 1. “Especially because coach gave me a little bit of power-play too. I feel more confidence right now. It’s exciting to play with the team, these guys. It’s an amazing time. It’s playoffs.”
After participating in an optional practice on Thursday, it was a big boost for Malkin to be back with all the guys at a fully-attended skate – and the feeling was mutual.
“You see them progress, and you’re happy they’re doing well and you just kind of wait for that time,” said Crosby, who at one point – after an intense battle at the net-front – put his arm around Malkin as they skated away. “I think that you get a big lift from seeing guys come back.”
Though it’s been a while since Malkin had been out there with the guys – over a month, to be exact – Crosby feels like he hasn’t missed a beat.
“He always looks good. think that’s the thing with ‘G’ – he’s always dancing out there, always moving his feet,” Crosby smiled. “I think that hopefully it’s just a matter of time here, but he looks real strong.”
Malkin again took part in contact and was involved in all the drills. After saying Thursday he felt his shot wasn’t strong enough, today Malkin was pleased with how he fired the puck.
“I’m glad with how I’m shooting,” he said. “I haven’t lost power. It’s the same shot. Wrist shot and slap shot are the same. Every day it’s better. Again, it’s a good practice today. I’m glad to skate with the team, it’s more fun.”RUST
While Rust said that things are “a little bit better than yesterday,” he was still taking it day by day and hopes to be ready sooner rather than later.
“There’s things that I’ve got to kind of keep in mind here over the next however long,” said Rust, who missed the last six regular-season games along with Game 1.
“If things keep going in the direction that they’re going, I’ll be happy. I’m just trying to get all those movements back to normal, whether it’s the turning, stopping, everything. It’s kind of one of those things that trying to see improvement every day.”
Malkin smiled at the thought of potentially playing with Rust and Sheary at some point, calling them two fast guys on the team. And if Rust does get a chance to skate alongside him at some point, his biggest focus would be using his speed to get the puck onto Malkin’s stick.
“It’s more about playing my straight-line, fast, hard game,” Rust said. “Trying to just get on the forecheck, win pucks and kind of give him some space to do what he does best.”
His former Wilkes-Barre/Scranton teammate Sheary feels that’s exactly what he could bring as well.
“(Malkin) likes to play offense, and he likes to play quick,” Sheary said. “I think I can play that game. I can play with speed, and I can play with pace. I think if he plays his own game, and I play my own game, I think we could complement each other.”FLEURY
While players obviously prefer games over practice, especially at this time of year, Fleury is making the most of his sessions with the team over this week as he continues to progress in his recovery.
“(Today) was fun. Felt good,” said Fleury, who missed the final five regular-season games and did not start or fill the backup role for Game 1. “It feels a little better having a few more practices with the guys. So that was nice.”
It’s wait-and-see for Fleury when it comes to his status for Game 2.
“I don’t know if I expect to (play), but I’d love to,” he said. “It feels like it’s been taking forever. But it’s something with this injury. It’s tough to play with. It’s not like a bruise or bad knee or something you can battle through. It’s been frustrating, but it’s making progress.”GAME 2
With Saturday having a 3 p.m. puck drop, the Pens will not hold a morning skate – so we talked to a few of them about Game 1 and what they hope to improve going into Game 2.
“It’s nice to see that we won 5-2, but we know we can play better,” Carl Hagelin said. “That wasn’t our best game so that’s a good thing, but we have to get a better start tomorrow night.”
That was the sentiment repeated throughout the locker room, as no one in there was happy with the way they played in the first few minutes. They were outshot by a wide margin and allowed a lot of quality chances against.
“We can’t let them dictate that pressure,” Chris Kunitz said. “If their game plan was to put pucks at our net, our goalie (Jeff Zatkoff) was up for that challenge and really bailed us out those first 10-11 minutes. He made some key saves and I think that got him comfortable in the net. Once we settled in and we started to play with the puck and not give them those odd-man chances, those rebound chances, we dictated the pace a little better.”
In addition, while one of the Pens’ strengths is their transition game through the neutral zone, Hagelin would like to see them spend more time in the offensive zone.
“We have to get more pucks deep on their team,” Hagelin said. “I think in that game all our chances came off the rush, so I think (we need to get) some more cycles going and tire them out a little bit."