It always feels good for a player to return to team practice, but it's even better when that time comes sooner than anticipated.
That was the case for Jason Zucker, who skated with the Penguins on Sunday at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex for the first time since suffering a lower-body injury on Feb. 23 that has sidelined him for the last 18 games.
"It's definitely a lot quicker than I expected, given the timeline," the 28-year-old winger said following the session. "It was something that it's definitely a lot faster than I thought. But I have to give our training staff a ton of credit for what they've done and the amount of work that they've put in to help me get back to where I am today."
Zucker took part in line rushes, skating alongside Jared McCann and Evan Rodrigues. He also practiced with the second power-play unit, both encouraging signs that he is progressing towards a return to game action.
"I think the recovery has been really good so far," Zucker said. "I'm excited to be where I'm at. I feel good right now. This was a good step in the right direction, being back with the guys and being able to take some contact and just be a part of the overall flow of the practice. So I thought that was a good next step, and we'll just keep taking it from here."
Video: Zucker speaks with the media
Zucker was hurt in the third period of Pittsburgh's 3-2 overtime win over Washington when his skate clipped the skate of Capitals defenseman Nick Jensen and sent him awkwardly into the boards in front of the Penguins bench.
"It was just a weird situation that honestly was unavoidable," Zucker said. "After I clipped his skate, it just kind of threw me a little bit off and wasn't able to catch myself. I think if I wasn't against the boards, probably would have eliminated the situation, but it's just the way it goes."
After Zucker returned to Pittsburgh for further evaluation, he was given a "longer-term" timeline for recovery, which unfortunately been the case for most injuries he's dealt with over the years.
"It's just kind of the way it's gone for me personally," he said. "You just try to do the best you can rehab-wise trying to stay in hockey shape, and then it's a matter of trying to get back into it as quick as you can once you do get into game situations. A lot of it's practice in the rehab side of things, just trying to make sure that you stay up on your weights, your rehab, your cardio, all those things."
But as head coach Mike Sullivan said at the time, Zucker is a resilient guy who would work his tail off to get back as soon as he can. And whenever that time comes, whether it's Monday against the New York Islanders or later on, the Penguins are looking forward to it.
"He can help us in so many different ways," Sullivan said. "He's a gritty player. He goes to the battle areas. He's good in traffic. He's got a skill level. He can score goals. He can help us on the power play. He brings a speed dimension to his game. There's so many aspects of his game that helps our team become a better team."
Forward Mark Jankowski also took part in practice after being unavailable for Saturday's 5-3 win over the New York Islanders due to being placed on the COVID Protocol Related Absences List. He has since been removed from the list, as has Brandon Tanev.
Sullivan said the winger (upper-body, 5 games missed) and forward Teddy Blueger (upper-body, 7 games missed) skated this morning with skills and development coach Ty Hennes.
Here's the workflow the Penguins used…
Angello mixed in on the fourth line
PP1) Letang, Crosby, Guentzel, Rust, McCann
PP2) Marino, Matheson, Zucker, Rodrigues, Angello/Zohorna