Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin practiced fully with his teammates Saturday afternoon at Capital One Arena, where he donned a contact jersey for the first time in more than a week. There were few signs he was struggling with a lower-body injury that has kept him out the past two games, including Thursday night’s 3-2 victory over the Washington Capitals in Game 1 of their second-round playoff series.
But for as normal as Malkin seemed, there are still questions about when he will be ready to rejoin the Penguins. Pittsburgh Coach Mike Sullivan said Malkin will be a game-time decision for Sunday’s Game 2, but did not divulge any details about how he might use his star center or whether he will need to manage his minutes as he works back into the fold.
“I think I’m going to give you the same answer,” Sullivan said, “I think we’re going to put him in a position where he can play to his strengths, he can be successful as an individual and he can help our team win.”
Malkin himself would not reveal the specifics of his injury as he sat down at his locker after practice on Saturday afternoon, just that the lower body ailment “feels so much better.” He was injured in Game 5 of the Penguins’ first-round series win against the Philadelphia Flyers, and while he played through the injury in that contest, he sat for Game 6 and didn’t skate for nearly a week.
“It’s hard to feel right now. My breathing is so hard,” Malkin said. “But I need to work a little bit more and help the team.”
Malkin practiced partly with the fourth line Saturday, which prompted a reporter to ask Sullivan whether he might use his injured star there to begin Game 2. Sullivan paused and looked around the room. “Putting [Malkin] on the fourth line? Probably not,” he finally quipped, drawing laughter from reporters midway through his news conference.
It was a light moment that underscores just how dangerous Pittsburgh’s lineup could be for Washington once Malkin returns. The Capitals are still searching for answers after squandering a two-goal lead in the third period of Game 1, in which first-line mates Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel scored goals on back-to-back shifts to put the Penguins ahead. Those two players have combined for 14 goals and 17 assists through the first seven games of the playoffs.
Pittsburgh also is playing without Carl Hagelin, who has an upper-body injury and did not make the trip to Washington for Games 1 and 2. Washington is healthier, even though Andre Burakovsky is still week-to-week with an upper-body injury. He could potentially return later in the series, but has not started to skate in practice yet.
Malkin has, and he impressed Sullivan on Saturday. He took part in normal power-play drills and slapped his stick on the glass after one ended in the defense’s favor. He looked like a player eager to return to the lineup and change the dynamic of this series. When he does return, he isn’t planning on his ice time being staggered.
“If I’m playing, I’m ready to play. If you play, you need to show you can, you show you’re 100 percent. It’s not like the regular season,” Malkin said. “You can’t play slow the first period and be better in third. If I play, if I’m ready, I’m ready first shift.”
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