After Wednesday’s 5-0 demolition of the New York Islanders in Game 1 of a first-round Stanley Cup playoff series, it’s clear the Pittsburgh Penguins are still a formidable team even without their most valuable piece. Nevertheless, getting the sport’s best player back in the lineup can’t exactly hurt a team’s championship aspirations.
Crosby, who has missed more than a month due to a still-healing shattered jaw, took a major step toward pulling on a game jersey yet again when he fully participated in Penguins practice Thursday afternoon at Consol Energy Center.
One day after telling the media he hadn’t been medically cleared to play, Crosby took line rushes with Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz and manned a spot on the Penguins’ top power-play unit, according to the Penguins website. This was a marked change from Wednesday morning’s game-day workout, when Crosby skated alongside depth forwards Tyler Kennedy and Dustin Jeffrey and didn’t take part in power-play exercises.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma told Dave Molinari of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he was “preparing for different scenarios” by including Crosby in all aspects of practice. Crosby saw a doctor Tuesday and was given no timetable for his return.
As he has done since returning to practice last week, Crosby donned a plastic shield to protect his jaw area in addition to his usual visor. Although skating with familiar faces in Dupuis and Kunitz doesn’t guarantee No. 87 will be back for Friday’s Game 2, it does signal that the Penguins’ leading scorer is getting quite close to taking the ice against the Islanders, who coincidentally were the opponent March 30 when Brooks Orpik’s deflected shot crashed into his mouth.
In other practice-related developments, rookie Beau Bennett was placed on Evgeni Malkin’s left wing, with Jarome Iginla taking the right side. Bennett, who scored on his first playoff shot in Wednesday’s first period, replaced the injured James Neal on Malkin’s flank. Neal left Game 1 in the second period when his right leg appeared to twist against the boards as New York’s Travis Hamonic delivered a legal check.
While Neal was missing at practice, Jussi Jokinen centered a fourth line between Tanner Glass and Craig Adams. Jokinen had two assists Wednesday but was tripped by the Islanders’ Marty Reasoner in the third period and limped off the ice. Reasoner was issued a five-minute major for kneeing on the play. After practice, Jokinen told the assembled media he was “all right…ready to go.”
Neal’s absence and Crosby’s elevated status didn’t affect the third line, featuring Brandon Sutter, Brenden Morrow and Matt Cooke. However, the defense pairings underwent some adjustments, with Mark Eaton-Kris Letang, Douglas Murray-Matt Niskanen and Orpik-Deryk Engelland making up the top three duos, as Paul Martin was late to get on the ice.
Orpik has missed the past three games with an undisclosed lower-body injury and offered no update of his status for Game 2.