Apr. 3, 2013; New York, NY, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins left wing Chris Kunitz (14) handles the puck in front of New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (30) during the third period at Madison Square Garden. Rangers won 6-1. Mandatory Credit: Debby Wong-USA TODAY Sports

Penguins Gameday Skate: Beau Bennett close to return, James Neal back on ice


The Pittsburgh Penguins have cut line rushes out of their recent gameday skates, so it’s difficult to determine how close certain injured players are to returning to the lineup.

Nevertheless, as reported by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review‘s Rob Rossi, it appears young winger Beau Bennett‘s absence from game action is about to come to an end. Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said Bennett, who has missed nearly a month with a lower-body injury, is “likely” to play Saturday at St. Louis.

That doesn’t help the Penguins in Wednesday night’s game against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, but Bylsma also said Chris Kunitz should play in New York despite missing practices on Monday and Tuesday. In other injury news, James Neal (upper-body ailment) was on the ice for the morning skate but did not take part in official team-related activities.

Although the Penguins have been at less than full strength since opening night, they have posted an 11-4-0 record that has them six points clear of the Capitals for first place in the new Metropolitan Division. Of the 12 NHL teams who have accumulated 20 points thus far, only Pittsburgh resides in the tepid waters of the Metro.

That less-than-inspiring competition is a luxury for the Penguins, but it can also lead to a lack of urgency if a team isn’t sufficiently self-motivated. I’ve written in the past about the Pens’ remarkable ability to start games (and seasons) well under Bylsma, which is a sign of professionalism. If the rest of the Metro continues to flounder, Pittsburgh shouldn’t have issues staying at or near the top of its game.

Wednesday night’s faceoff is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., with NBC Sports Network broadcasting the game nationwide. The matchup against the Rangers marks the first of three consecutive weeks the Penguins will be featured as part of NBCSN’s Wednesday Night Rivalry series. The Pens will face the Flyers next Wednesday and the Capitals on Nov. 20.

If you’re doubting the rivalry status of Penguins vs. Rangers, make sure to watch the 30-minute review of the feud’s big moments prior to the game. It was broadcast late last night as well, and it’s remarkable how often Pittsburgh has gotten the better of New York in the Stanley Cup playoffs. From the sweep of 1989 to the comeback of 1992, the domination of 1996 and the Jaromir Jagr-related drama of 2008, the Penguins have always beaten the Rangers when the stakes are highest.

The intensity won’t be at springtime levels tonight as the two division foes begin their season series, but there’s an opportunity for the Pens to expand the 10-point gap between themselves and New York (6-8-0, 12 points).

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