CRANBERRY, Pa. — Evgeni Malkin and Bryan Rust each took full contact for the first time with the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday since their respective injuries.
Rust, a first-line right wing when healthy, could return when the Penguins are scheduled to play the Ottawa Senators at Canadian Tire Centre on Friday (1 p.m. ET; TSN5, RDS, ATTSN-PT, ESPN+, NHL LIVE). He has been out since Nov. 24 with a lower-body injury.
Malkin, a second-line center, is not expected to be ready by then, Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. He has not played this season after having knee surgery June 4.
“I think that [Rust] is certainly a reasonable expectation,” Sullivan said. “I think there’s a chance. I don’t think ‘Geno’ would be ready that soon. But certainly, they’re both making significant progress. The fact that they participated in practice in a full capacity today suggests so.
“There’s a reasonable chance that we would get [Rust] back. I think it would be aggressive on Geno’s part.”
Malkin took rushes at first-line left wing Monday with Sidney Crosby at center and Rust at right wing. He started skating more than two months ago, working with skills coach Ty Hennes before a practice Oct. 18. The 35-year-old had mostly practiced in a white, no-contact jersey since first joining the Penguins for a morning skate in Calgary on Nov. 29. He wore a regular black jersey when he first took limited contact Dec. 18.
“We have used Geno there on occasion over my time here as the coach,” Sullivan said. “I wouldn’t anticipate Geno playing wing on a consistent basis. We really like him at the center-ice position. Him and Sid have been, in my mind, the best one-two punch in the League for a long time. It helps us create that certain competitive balance.”
Rust has scored nine points (two goals, seven assists) in 12 games this season. He ended a 10-game goal drought by scoring in his most recent game, a 4-1 win against the Vancouver Canucks.
“Anytime you get hurt, it’s not ideal,” Rust said. “I was playing decent and getting better. Something unfortunate happens, miss some more time. Hopefully I can come back healthy here and get back to playing well.”
Malkin and Rust can each become an unrestricted free agent after this season. Rust said he isn’t concerned about injuries hindering a chance of re-signing with the Penguins.
“Not even a little bit,” Rust said. “For me, I’ve been in the League for a long time now. Things happen, injuries happen to everybody. The timing [stinks] sometimes, but it is what it is. You have to take adversity as it comes. Keep your head down, motor through it.
“Now I’m going to be healthy again soon, try to get out there and play well. Help this team win games. Do what I do.”
The Penguins (17-8-5) have won seven straight games, including five in a row without Malkin, Rust and forward Jake Guentzel (upper body). They’ve had four games postponed because of COVID-19 issues.
Guentzel, a first-line left wing, did not practice because of an illness unrelated to COVID-19. He has missed five games with an upper-body injury that has him week to week and returned to practice in a no-contact jersey Dec. 20. He leads the Penguins with 27 points (15 goals, 12 assists) in 24 games.
“Sounds to me like he’s feeling a little bit better,” Sullivan said. “We’ll see how he is tomorrow. We’re hopeful we’ll get him fairly soon.”
Goalie Tristan Jarry, forwards Evan Rodrigues, Teddy Blueger and Dominik Simon, and defensemen Mike Matheson and John Marino, were added to NHL COVID-19 protocol Monday. Rodrigues had been first-line left wing in Guentzel’s place.
Forward Jason Zucker did not practice. He is week to week with a nagging lower-body injury, Sullivan said.