The Penguins could get center Evgeni Malkin back from injury as soon as tonight when they play the Islanders on Long Island.
They are, to put it mildly, thrilled that he's getting close to a comeback from what is believed to be a shoulder injury, and it's no wonder.
The defending NHL scoring champion and MVP is a little down in goals with five but has 24 points in 21 games.
"We don't even have to explain that," fellow center Sidney Crosby said of the boost the Penguins will get when Malkin returns.
"Whenever he's ready, we'll be more than happy to get him in. He does everything."
Including raise the game of James Neal, a sniper who scored a career-best 40 goals last season playing on Malkin's right wing. Their chemistry has been widely chronicled.
Malkin has missed the past six games. He also missed four games earlier this season because of a concussion. In those 10 games, Neal has two goals, six assists. But Malkin's absence seems to be taking a bigger toll the longer it goes.
Penguins vs. New York Islanders, 7:08 p.m. today, Nassau Coliseum, Uniondale, N.Y.
- TV, Radio:
Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).
- Probable goaltenders:
Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Evgeni Nabokov for Islanders.
Have won 10 games in row. ... Are 2-1 vs. Islanders. ... Are 9-1 in one-goal games, including 6-0 in March.
Were 5-2-2 in 9 games before playing Montreal at home Thursday. ... 3.31 goals against per game before Thursday was among worst in NHL. ... Brad Boyes had 4 goals, 10 points over 8 games before Thursday.
- Hidden stat:
Islanders were 1-9-1 when John Tavares did not score going into Thursday's game.
Neal has no points in the past four games, no goals in the past five.
Which, to coach Dan Bylsma, is perfectly understandable.
"I would be more alarmed if his production hadn't dropped off," Bylsma said. "You're talking about the [defending] best player in the league, MVP. Not having that as your centerman, there's going to be [a dropoff]."
Dustin Jeffery and, occasionally, Brandon Sutter have filled in at center on that line, which has rookie Beau Bennett on the left side.
It's not that they have been slouches, but they are not Malkin, a lanky but strong playmaker who has meshed perfectly with Neal, who has a quick, accurate shot.
Malkin acknowledged Wednesday that he "needs to play more" with Bennett, who seems to be sticking in the left winger spot on that line after a parade of others were tried earlier in this season.
No such acclimation is needed for Malkin and Neal, who originally was slated to be Crosby's left winger when the Penguins acquired him from Dallas in a February 2011 trade. A switch to the right side and to Malkin's line produced a combination that has been golden.
Neal hasn't found a deeper regard for Malkin while playing without him, if only because it already ran deep.
"I've always had that great appreciation for him, how good he is and how skilled he is," Neal said of Malkin. "Right from day one. It doesn't change when he's not there.
"Not only me, but the team appreciates what he does, what he brings to our team."
Neal still has 18 goals, 29 points in 31 games, good enough to rank him 20th in the NHL in scoring before Thursday's games. He led the league with 17 power-play goals last season and has eight this season.
Malkin and Neal are usually fixtures on the top power-play unit.
"James' shots on the power play have gone down," Bylsma said. "That's a focus for our power play."
Overall, Neal is averaging 3.2 shots a game this season. In the past six games Malkin has been out, Neal is averaging two shots a game.
Crosby figures it's easier to get open when opponents are drawn to Malkin.
"[Neal] is a shooter, and [Malkin] is a guy who's able to make plays," Crosby said. "I don't think anyone wants to change their game based on who's playing or not playing, but definitely when [Malkin] is out there, he demands a lot of attention. [Neal] with his shot doesn't need much time, so he definitely benefits from that.
"[Neal] is doing a lot of good things, and he'll find a way to put pucks in the net for us."
Neal is reluctant to attribute his longest goal drought of the season to Malkin's absence -- "It's just the circumstances; you can't score every game," he said -- but he understands the magnitude of having Malkin out of the lineup.
"He's a huge part of our team," Neal said. "Everyone knows how good he is. For myself, I've built some good chemistry with him and been able to build off of that from last year.
"We just want him to be healthy and back strong and ready to go."
For 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 and Twitter @pgshelly. First Published March 22, 2013 4:00 AM