Malkin and Rust Progress to Full Contact; Six Players Enter Protocol –

Posted: December 29, 2021 at 10:24 am


- The Penguins returned to practice on Monday at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex after having four days off for the holidays

- Forwards Evgeni Malkin (knee) and Bryan Rust (lower-body) were both full participants, taking huge steps in their respective recoveries

- Winger Jake Guentzel (upper-body) missed today with a non-COVID related illness. The team will see how he is tomorrow, and are hopeful to get him back fairly soon

- Winger Jason Zucker is now week-to-week with a nagging lower-body injury

- Goaltender Tristan Jarry, defensemen John Marino and Mike Matheson, and forwards Teddy Blueger, Evan Rodrigues and Dominik Simon have all been added to the NHL's COVID-19 Protocol List


Let's start with the good news.

Malkin has progressed even closer towards his season debut after practicing in a full capacity for the first time. It was great to see, especially considering that it's been an such a long road dating back to March of last season.

Malkin, 35, was first injured in a collision with Bruins defenseman Jarrod Tinordi and was sidelined for the final six weeks of the year - missing 23 consecutive contests - as well as Games 1 and 2 of Pittsburgh's first-round matchup with the Islanders. After undergoing surgery on his right knee in June, Malkin was cleared to join the team in a non-contact fashion on Nov. 29 and had been mostly participating in that capacity until today.

While Mike Sullivan doesn't think Malkin will be ready to play in Pittsburgh's next game, which is scheduled for Friday in Ottawa - "I think it would be aggressive on Geno's part" - the head coach said there was a reasonable chance Rust could return. The forward echoed that sentiment.

"It feels good out there," Rust said. "Obviously to be able to be back in regular jersey is nice. It's been a while The plan is to have a game in Ottawa. Hopefully I'll be able to play that one, but we'll see how the schedule works out."

Rust, 27, has missed the last 11 games with a lower-body injury suffered in warmups ahead of Pittsburgh's 1-0 win over the Islanders on Nov. 26. The timing of that was particularly difficult, as Rust - who had already been sidelined for seven games from Oct. 16-Nov. 4 - had snapped a 10-game goalless streak in the contest prior.

"Obviously any time you get hurt, it's not ideal," Rust said. "I only played 12 games, so I was playing decent and getting better, and then something unfortunate happens and had to miss some more time. But hopefully I can come back healthy here and get back to playing well, and help this team keep winning games."

Video: Bryan Rust speaks with the media.

Now for the not-so-good news. In addition to Zucker being put on the shelf, the Penguins have been hit with a second wave of COVID-19 cases after Chad Ruhwedel, Brian Dumoulin, Zach Aston-Reese, Marcus Pettersson, Kris Letang, Jeff Carter, Sidney Crosby and Mike Sullivan all confirmed positive earlier in the year. More recently, skills coach Ty Hennes had to isolate as well.

"For the most part, everybody is doing very well," Sullivan said of the players currently in the protocol. "There are a couple of the guys that have mild, almost like cold-like symptoms. But most of them are doing very well. There's a handful of them that are asymptomatic. So none of them, to this point, have anything significant."

As of now, the Penguins are not scheduled to play again until Friday, Dec. 31 at Ottawa after having four games postponed (12/21 vs. New Jersey; 12/23 vs. Philadelphia; 12/27 at Boston, and 12/29 at Toronto) due to COVID-related reasonsacross the league. Letang, who is the team's NHLPA representative, said his sense is that the main goal is to ultimately keep the season going.

"Try to have the season as normal as possible and have the games be played," the defenseman said. "But obviously, a lot of teams are getting COVID, the farm teams also, so it's tough to call up when you have an outbreak in the minors. So right now, it's kind of day-to-day analysis of what's going on around the league and what can be done to play games. And that's all we know right now."

The NHL and NHLPA are taking certain measures to help ensure that happens, like allowing teams to form Taxi Squads on a temporary basis lasting through the date of their final game prior to the scheduled dates for the 2022 All-Star Break (Feb. 4-5). For the Penguins, that will be Feb. 1 vs. Washington.

Sullivan said the Penguins are sorting through that right now, and through his preliminary discussions with general manager Ron Hextall, anticipates them utilizing it in certain instances. Like their upcoming trip to Dallas, Philadelphia, Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose and Vegas from Jan. 5-17.

"That might be a circumstance where we utilize a taxi squad and bring some extra guys out there. Just logistically, it's a challenge if you end up needing guys when you're already on the other side of the country," Sullivan said. "We're still trying to sort through that aspect of it, but I would anticipate us utilizing it. I just don't know how consistently at this point."

Video: Coach Mike Sullivan speaks with the media.

There's certainly been a lot thrown at the Penguins in the last week or so, but they've been conditioned to expect the unexpected. Since Day 1 of training camp, Sullivan said they've talked about how they're not on the other side of the pandemic yet, and that's going to keep throwing adversity their way. It's just a matter of reacting the right way and controlling what they can.

"The goalposts move every couple of days, it seems, but I feel very fortunate to be able to come to the rink and do what we do," Sullivan said. "There's a lot of people that are in way worse circumstances than we are. I'm grateful that for the guys that have got COVID to this point, we've had no serious cases, which is a big deal, right? First and foremost, we want to keep everybody healthy. Hopefully, the guys we have in the COVID protocol can continue to be asymptomatic and/or have very mild symptoms, and we can get these guys back in the fold as soon as we can.

"In the meantime, we're going to put the team on the ice that's going to give us the best chance to win. We're going to practice every day. And we're going to get excited about the opportunity in front of us."

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Malkin and Rust Progress to Full Contact; Six Players Enter Protocol -

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