Tiny Sullivan looming large in 5-on-5 and power play for Penguins

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Steve Sullivan, at 5 feet 8, 161 pounds, is not the biggest man in the NHL.

Or on his team. Or his line.

Or almost anywhere outside his locker-room stall.

At 37, he certainly is not the Penguins' youngest player. And, having missed 161 games because of injury the past four seasons -- that's only six fewer than the total in which he appeared -- Sullivan likely is not the most durable.

None of that, however, dissuaded the Penguins from signing him as a free agent July 1 and penciling him in for a role that could make Sullivan one of the key variables in their 2011-12 season.

He is scheduled to be a top-six winger -- most likely with Evgeni Malkin as his center -- and to get significant work on the power play, including time on the point.

Sullivan will fill those niches not because of his vital statistics, but because of the offensive ones the Penguins are convinced he still can generate.

"He's an offensive player," said assistant coach Tony Granato, who oversees the forwards. "He's gifted. He sees things ordinary players don't see.

"The chemistry [Sullivan and Malkin] have had in the times they've played together in this training camp, it looks like a pretty nice combination."

Sullivan practiced on a line with Malkin and James Neal Thursday, but whether he will be there -- or anywhere in the lineup -- when the Penguins visit Chicago at 8 tonight in their next-to-last preseason game is not certain.

That decision likely will not be made until today, when Sullivan informs the medical staff how the groin he tweaked in the intrasquad scrimmage in Wilkes-Barre last Monday feels a day after a demanding workout.

Assuming there are no complications, Sullivan hopes to dress for the game tonight and one Sunday in Detroit.

"If it feels great, I'd like to get into both," he said.

Sullivan's on-ice interaction with his teammates has been limited to practices and the game in Wilkes-Barre, so participating in an exhibition game or two should help him to get acclimated to his new club.

"I'm trying to [absorb] all the different systems and all the different plays we have and put them into game-type situations," he said. "Familiarize myself with the systems going at game speed."

Sullivan's games-missed numbers aside, he is not injury-prone, in the conventional sense. He is more like, catastrophic-injury prone.

He missed the entire 2007-08 season because of a back problem that eventually required surgery and 40 more games the next season while recovering from that operation. He appeared in all 82 in 2009-10, then sat out 38 last season because of a groin problem.

"When I've missed time, it's been a lot of time," he said.

Penguins officials know a bit about having key players out for extended stretches -- Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal combined to miss 120 games last season -- but insist they have no special concerns about Sullivan's ability to withstand an 82-game grind.

Sullivan said his intent is to play in every one and that "I'm not going to set the bar lower than 82," and Granato said the coaching staff has the same mindset. There is, he said, no plan to give Sullivan nights off simply to rest him.

"We want him in there as much as possible, obviously," Granato said. "He's going to play, when he's healthy."

If the current plan holds, Sullivan will log a meaningful percentage of his ice time on the power play. He has experience on the point and is a right-handed shot, which is significant when the Penguins' man-advantage units feature lefties such as Crosby, Malkin, Neal and Chris Kunitz and only a few right shots such as Kris Letang and Tyler Kennedy.

"That gives us another [dimension] to our power play that we really didn't have last year," Granato said. "That should help us a lot."

If it does, and if the Sullivan-Malkin partnership meshes the way the Penguins hope, the numbers Sullivan puts up will mean more than most others. Including his height, weight and man-games lost totals.

NOTES -- Sidney Crosby has not been cleared for contact, but was jostled a good bit during a scrimmage Thursday. Coach Dan Bylsma said Crosby and the other injured players figure to accompany the Penguins on their season-opening swing through Western Canada next week. ... Right winger Nick Johnson, assigned to the Penguins' minor league team in Wilkes-Barre Wednesday, was claimed on waivers by Minnesota.

For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Dave Molinari: dmolinari@post-gazette.com and Twitter @molinaripg.


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