Their playoff position secure ahead of a game with no postseason implications, the Pittsburgh Penguins simply hope to stay healthy when they wrap up their regular season against the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday night.
Pittsburgh (35-12-0) is the top seed in the Eastern Conference, an impressive accomplishment considering the spate of injuries to key players Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, defenseman Paul Martin and of course, center Sidney Crosby.
Crosby, who almost certainly would have won the Art Ross Trophy as the league's leading scorer - despite missing the last 11 games with a broken jaw, his 56 points are only two fewer than the total of leader Martin St. Louis - as well as garnered plenty of consideration for the Hart Trophy as MVP. He participated in non-contact drills - his first practice time in nearly a month - Friday and is still waiting to be cleared while also adjusting to a new shield that protects the injured jaw.
"(Returning) is not really up to me," he told the Penguins' official website after practice. "I'll just keep talking to the doctors. It's something they have to be comfortable with the healing.
"It's pretty good. I can tell there is something wrong, but it's not anything that's been too painful. The last week or so has been pretty good."
Even with back-to-back losses, the most recent a 3-2 defeat at New Jersey on Thursday, it has been a pretty good week for the Penguins. Malkin has returned after missing four games with an upper-body injury and coach Dan Bylsma said Neal and Martin will return for this game.
Neal - third on the team with 18 goals - has missed the last eight games after suffering a concussion April 5, while Martin was sidelined the previous 12 with a broken bone in his left hand from blocking a shot March 28.
"I wasn't trying to rush it back or get in a game before playoffs," Neal said. "I feel like I'm ready to play now. So just get back up to game speed and get ready and ramp it up for the playoffs."
Neal likely will feature on Pittsburgh's top line with Malkin and Chris Kunitz, and Martin practiced Friday with Simon Despres.
Carolina (19-24-4) can secure third place in the Southeast with a point but will miss the playoffs for the fourth straight season. The Hurricanes have gone 2-1-2 in their last five, but a 4-3 overtime defeat to the New York Rangers on Thursday left a bitter taste.
A fluke carom off the end board led to the puck bouncing off goaltender Dan Ellis' skate for the tying goal late in regulation.
"There's times that we haven't worked for our bounces,' said Ellis, who finished with 34 saves. "I think we did work for our bounces and we just got one against us.'
Alexander Semin will again not play due to a concussion, and coach Kirk Muller may give Staal brothers Jared, Eric and Jordan another chance as linemates. Jared made his NHL debut Thursday, playing just over 12 minutes.
The teams split the two previous games at Carolina, with Malkin snapping a 3-all tie with 9:58 left in a 5-3 victory April 9.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
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