After clinching the top spot in the Eastern Conference last weekend, the Pittsburgh Penguins planned to use this week’s four remaining regular-season contests to refine their game before the playoffs. Since then, they’ve gone 1-2 and looked flat in losses to the Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils.
Saturday, the Penguins will get a spark in their final regular-season contest as forward James Neal (concussion) and defenseman Paul Martin (hand surgery) return to the lineup after missing eight and 13 games, respectively. Forward Evgeni Malkin is also back, returning Tuesday versus Buffalo after missing four games with a recurring shoulder injury.
The return of Malkin, Neal and Martin is an important step toward getting the Penguins’ injury-riddled roster – which now includes defenseman Brooks Orpik and forward Joe Vitale, both out with lower-body injuries – back to some semblance of normal. It also allows those players the chance to get their legs and timing back in at least one game situation before the postseason begins next week.
“It’ll be good to get back in there and get playing again,” said Martin, who will have extra padding in his glove for protection. “Just to get in there and get some of your timing down and the speed and stuff like that.”
“I’ve been skating hard for a little while, so good to go,” Neal said. “I wasn’t trying to rush it back or get in a game before playoffs; it was just how it felt, and I feel like I’m ready to play now. Just get back up to game speed, get ready and ramp it up for the playoffs.”
Sidney Crosby won’t have that opportunity, although the Penguins captain has taken the next step in his recovery from a broken jaw and extensive dental injuries by returning to practice with the team. Crosby continues to wear a protective shield over his jaw and, as he’s not yet cleared for contact, there remains no timetable for his return – though he’s clearly hoping to be ready to start the playoffs.
“It’s not really up to me; it’s something [the doctors] have to feel comfortable with,” Crosby said. “As soon as they say the word, I’ll be ready to go.”
To Crosby’s disappointment, however, that won’t happen in time for Saturday’s regular-season finale.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to play,” he said. “It’d be nice to at least get one [game] in to get timing, things like that. But it doesn’t look like that’s going to be the case, so I’ll have to make sure that I prepare accordingly and find a way to get ready.”
Crosby is trying to do that as much as possible by taking advantage of the practice time. “It’s nice to get out there with the team,” he said. “Obviously, when you’re skating by yourself with just a couple guys, it’s not the same.
“I’m trying to be pretty careful out there; I don’t want to put myself in a position to have a setback or anything like that. I think you just try to get used to the tempo and the speed, but try to stay out of the way a bit.”
In the meantime, Crosby will have had the entire month of April to watch his team and its high-profile additions – forwards Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Jussi Jokinen and defenseman Douglas Murray – come together from a spectator’s perspective.
“It’s been nice to see the guys come in and play the way they have, to adjust and adapt the way they have,” Crosby said. “I think it says a lot about the players they are, and I think it says a lot about our team; guys are all willing to adjust and do what it takes to win. You don’t get an easy transition like that if that’s not the case.
“We’re playing good hockey, and I think we should be happy and know we’re ready come the playoffs.”