Forty-eight games into the lockout-shortened 2012-13 NHL season, it was time for the Stanley Cup playoffs.
2013-14 is a different story of course, with still 34 regular-season games to go before the tournament begins. The Pittsburgh Penguins probably prefer it that way, since they have had a combined 87 man-games lost to injury among their 10 most important skaters (top-six forwards and top-four defensemen). It takes time to get all the pieces locked in and ready to go.
With 10 games to go before the Olympic break, the Penguins (34-12-2, 70 points) appear to be getting two of those big-money, big-minutes players back, as winger James Neal and defenseman Paul Martin were back in their customary spots during line rushes at Monday’s morning skate.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said his lineup for tonight’s home matchup with the Florida Panthers is a “game-time decision,” but judging by player usage, it seems a near certainty that Neal and Martin will dress.
Neal has missed 21 games this season – including last Wednesday’s win over Washington with an undisclosed upper-body injury – but he participated in drills on Evgeni Malkin‘s right wing Monday morning. Martin, who hasn’t played in the Penguins’ past 25 tilts with a broken tibia, was paired with fellow United States Olympian Brooks Orpik.
That promising news was augmented by the presence of depth forwards Chuck Kobasew and Jayson Megna at the workout. In a bit of a surprise, Kobasew skated on the Pens’ top line with Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz, while Megna manned the right wing on the fourth line.
Both Kobasew and Megna were out with lower-body injuries, although Megna’s was more serious, as he hasn’t played since colliding with Toronto goalie Jonathan Bernier on Dec. 16. The energetic 23-year-old rookie has missed 13 games while recuperating.
Marc-Andre Fleury gets the start tonight as the first-in-the-East Penguins host the Panthers (18-23-7, 43 points) at 7 p.m. Scott Clemmensen will be in the Florida cage, as the visitors try to hand Pittsburgh its first regulation loss of 2014.
The Pens are 5-0-1 since the calendar page turned and a sultry 14-2-1 over the past eight weeks. They have won a franchise-record 13 in a row at home and are 10-3 in their last 13 meetings with the Panthers. Pittsburgh split a pair of games in Florida earlier this season.
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