A year ago, Penguins center Evgeni Malkin spent the first round of the playoffs watching as he recovered from knee surgery and begging the coaches to let him play -- in the second round, if not the third.
He didn't get the chance. The Penguins lost in seven games against Tampa Bay and did not advance.
Now Malkin is healthy and on top of his game. He won the NHL scoring title with 109 points and reached 50 goals for the first time.
"Of course, I'm hungry to play," Malkin said after practice Tuesday, the eve of the Penguins' opening-round series against Philadelphia. "I missed [the playoffs] last season. It's an unbelievable time. I'll enjoy it and try to show my best."
Malkin said he won't be distracted by things such as facing good friend and former Penguins teammate and road roommate Max Talbot.
"He likes playing against the Penguins, I think," Malkin said. "He's worked hard and does a great job on the faceoffs and [penalty killing]. It doesn't matter. I'll play my game, and we will try to win."
Growing up, Malkin was enamored of Jaromir Jagr, then a Penguins star winger, now one of the Flyers.
"I watched the Olympics. He played unbelievable," Malkin said. "He's my hero for sure, but now it's a different time. I'm playing against him and I want to beat him, too."
Jagr is 40, played shorter seasons in Russia the past three years and scored just one of his 19 goals over the last 16 regular-season games.
"He's always the best, and it doesn't matter what age," Malkin said. "He is 40 and still strong, has a great shot and he did a great job this year. We need to do a good job on [defense] with him."
Penguins fourth-line center Joe Vitale is expected to make his NHL playoff debut tonight.
"I'm not going to change," said Vitale, who had four goals, 14 points in 68 games in his first full NHL season. "It's been a long year. I'm definitely excited for the first taste of it.
"It seems like it's another level of energy. I want to keep going from where I left off."
Vitale, 26, is an energy guy whose style seems conducive to the playoffs.
"You hope that holds true," he said. "It kind of fits my game pretty well -- taking care of the puck and skating well and being responsible defensively, being physical, being an agitator. That can help win in the playoffs, so, hopefully, I can do that."
With two days of practice before the series opener tonight, the Penguins had an upbeat session Monday that featured a lot of five-on-five work. Tuesday, there was different detail work, such as faceoff plays, and a large chunk of time spent on special teams.
That included some four-on-three play and some six-on-five, which would represent a situation with the goaltender pulled.
"It's not something you always get a chance to work on extensively, but you might get just one of those situations in a game here in this series, and it's going to be a big game, a big situation," coach Dan Bylsma said.
Penguins defensemen Brian Strait and Deryk Engelland have no NHL playoff experience. Ben Lovejoy does, but he has been out two weeks because of arthroscopic surgery on his right knee.
Lovejoy is practicing and seems upbeat about his health status, and Bylsma expressed confidence in Lovejoy, saying he played well after three layoffs this season.
"When and if Ben gets healthy, he's going to be a guy we're comfortable [with] going in and [being] put in [different] situations," Bylsma said.
That being said, Bylsma declined to divulge anything about his Game 1 lineup.
Winger Matt Cooke, who was given the day off Monday, returned to practice. The only player who did not participate was defenseman Matt Niskanen, who skated earlier. He has an undisclosed injury. ... There are indications that Flyers center Danny Briere and defenseman Nicklas Grossmann will be able to play. Both were hurt on hits by Vitale April 1. Briere skated in practice some with linemates Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds. ... Flyers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky has gotten a lot of work against the Penguins, but Bylsma said he expects Ilya Bryzgalov to start every game in the series. ... Penguins owner and Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux watched practice.penguins
For much more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Shelly Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1721 or Twitter @pgshelly. First Published April 11, 2012 1:45 AM