The Pittsburgh Penguins be something they have not been lately when they square off against the Florida Panthers tonight; healthy. James Neal, Paul Martin, Chuck Kobasew, and Jayson Megna are all lacing up their skates and strapping on their pads after spending various lengths of time off the ice. It will be the closet the Pens have been to full strength since Opening Night. It has to be refreshing for the Penguins fans, coaches, the janitor that sweeps up at night, and (heck) everyone to hear injury news that doesn't end with 'out for blank'.
The biggest name on the marquee is easily James Neal, who returns to Evgeni Malkin's right side. Neal was hampered by a upper body injury and missed Wednesday's contest verses the Washington Capitals. When Neal is in the lineup, Geno goes off like a daggum rocket fueled with Mountain Dew and Pop Rocks. The duo is that explosive. They will be joined on the second by Jussi Jokinen, whose smooth passing sets up vicious one-timers from either side that makes goalies sweat. Be warned Tim Thomas.
On playing today, James Neal said, "I feel good. Ready to go tonight."
Paul Martin's return means he is taking the first step towards the Olympics. Martin assured his head coach for USA Hockey Dan Bylsma (hey, isn't that . . . ?) that his broken tibia (23 games ago) would be healed before the Sochi Games. But healed and game-ready are separate things. There are ten games left before the NHL takes a four-week hiatus for the Games. Martin has that long to prove he can compete at a high level for Team USA. If not, someone else might take his spot and that will probably be the tougest call for Bylsma to make.
Martin practiced with the second power play unit and was paired with long-time partner Brooks Orpik. To make room for Martin's return, Simon Despres was sent back to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
Kobasew and Megna add depth to a team that was ready to start selling the arena's bricks for it. Kobasew, out since December 31st, will be dropped on the first line with Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz. He will be the latest player slotted there as the Penguins continue to look for a solution to the 'Missing Pascal' problem. Jayson Megna will be stepping onto the fourth with Zach Sill and Craig Adams. Odds are, after shaking the rust off his collision with Maple Leafs goalie John Bernier, Megna will be assigned to the third line to try and spark things there. Point is, the Penguins have decent options for the first time in months.
Kobasew said, "It's been a while. It's been a frustrating past couple of months with injuries. I'm excited to be back. I feel better and ready to play."
Puck drops at 7:00pm and celebrate the Penguins health today. It might not be here for long. That's not unnecessary pessimism, that's just how the season's been going.
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- Rash of Injuries Influence Pittsburgh Penguins Opening Night Roster
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