Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Phil Kessel greets teammates after scoring during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Detroit Red Wings, Tuesday, April 2, 2019, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Malkin closer to return as Penguins vie for playoffs

April 03, 2019 - 4:23 pm

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Evgeni Malkin might be ready to get back to work. The Pittsburgh Penguins certainly need him.

The veteran center practiced with his teammates on Wednesday and could be back in the lineup on Thursday night against Detroit. Malkin has missed eight games with an upper-body injury and watched from afar as Pittsburgh failed to lock up a playoff spot in a 4-1 loss to the Red Wings on Tuesday.

The Penguins need just two points over their final two games or a single loss by Montreal to extend their postseason streak to 13 straight, but they have struggled to score of late. While Pittsburgh is 4-2-2 during Malkin's absence, the Penguins have scored more than two goals just three times.

"I feel like I'm ready to play," Malkin said. "I want (to play) couple games before playoffs. I need confidence back, need feel in game, feeling puck. I hope (Thursday) I wake up and I feel great and I'm ready to play."

Coach Mike Sullivan called Malkin a game-time decision. Malkin said the team's playoff positioning won't play a factor in the decision on whether he's good to go. Pittsburgh finishes the regular season at home on Saturday against the New York Rangers.

"It's not like if I play, we win game," Malkin said. "It's not like that. We play against good team and of course we want to win tomorrow. ... We understand (they are) huge games for us. We understand we need both."

The Penguins are currently third in the Metropolitan Division, two points behind the New York Islanders. Pittsburgh can't win the division but could earn home-ice in the opening round of the playoffs with two wins and one loss by the Islanders.

Defenseman Kris Letang also skated on Wednesday while wearing a non-contact jersey. Letang is still dealing with an upper-body injury suffered against Philadelphia on Feb. 23. He missed 11 games, returned for three games from March 19-23 before leaving again.

"I didn't feel comfortable after those games," Letang said. "I thought taking a little bit more time to get better was a better idea."

Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said he's not worried about the Penguins getting tight. The way Crosby looks at it, Pittsburgh has been in playoff mode for weeks while trying to carve out a spot in the cluttered Eastern Conference playoff race.

"Our urgency and our mentality going into games has had to be that way for a while," Crosby said. "I think (Thursday) is another test, another challenge, as far as that's concerned. I think our mindset is in the right place and we know the importance of it."

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