The prognosis when Marc-Andre Fleury injured his right ankle Dec. 6 in Calgary -- that he wouldn't be able to play for six or eight weeks -- seemed rather bleak.
Turns out it was overly optimistic.
But while week nine of Fleury's absence begins today, so does a significant step in his return from a high ankle sprain: He is scheduled to participate in at least part of the Penguins' practice at Mellon Arena this morning, the first time he has been able to do so since being injured.
The decision to have him work out with his teammates was made after Fleury got through a fairly demanding session with goalie coach Gilles Meloche and several staff members before the Penguins' informal practice yesterday at Mellon Arena.
"It's not 100 percent," Fleury said. "But it's getting better."
Although there still is no target date for Fleury to be back in uniform -- even without a setback, his remaining absence likely will be measured in weeks -- forwards Colby Armstrong and Adam Hall skated yesterday and said they could return as early as tomorrow, when Carolina visits Mellon Arena.
Armstrong missed the past two games because of a gastrointestinal ailment, and Hall sat out the past four because of a sore groin. Neither is a lock to face the Hurricanes, but neither has ruled it out, and Armstrong said "it's looking pretty good" for him to play then.
Armstrong, who doesn't carry any extra weight, lost about 5 pounds while he was ill, mostly because he was unable to keep food down for several days.
He stayed on the ice with assistant coach Mike Yeo after practice, which consisted mostly of a casual four-on-four scrimmage, for extra work in an effort to prepare him for a conventional workout today.
"It was good to get a sweat when I was actually doing something," Armstrong said.
He added that, although his energy level is down, a blood test has confirmed that, unlike teammate Tyler Kennedy, he does not have mononucleosis.
"I was thankful for that," Armstrong said.
Armstrong was stricken during the All-Star break last weekend and did not begin to get over his illness until midweek.
"I had my first good day [Wednesday]," he said. "I'd been pretty much bedridden the [previous] few days."
Hall didn't have to deal with that but has had to proceed cautiously since a groin problem forced him out of the Penguins' 2-0 victory Jan. 19 in Montreal. The practice yesterday was the most strenuous test his injury has had to date.
"You just have to see how it feels and take it step by step," Hall said. "The good news is, I feel like it's strengthening, getting stronger, so I just have to keep building it up.
"It's a gradual thing. You don't want to overextend and reinjure it, and set yourself back. But, at the same time, you want to push it a little harder each day."
He added that "I'm getting closer and closer to game shape," but declined to saw how close to normal his conditioning is because "that's something you never know until you get back."
Fleury's conditioning isn't an issue just yet; a more pressing concern is how his ankle will hold up under the demands of the butterfly style he plays. Being able to push off hard to return to an upright position after dropping into the butterfly is imperative, and Fleury was able to do it yesterday with no major difficulty.
"[There was] no sharp pain," Meloche said. "Just normal pain from not practicing, and scar tissue and stuff like that.
"He was moving well. When he gets in a real practice, then we'll know about his timing and conditioning. I guess his stamina would be pretty good, because he's worked pretty hard [off the ice]."
Fleury, of course, has had plenty of time to do that. More than most people anticipated when he was injured nearly two months ago.
NOTES -- The Penguins acquired minor-league forward David Gove from the Carolina Hurricanes organization last night in exchange for minor-league center Joe Jensen. Gove will report to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. ... Center Kris Beech, claimed on waivers from Washington last week, was supposed to skate yesterday after finally resolving his immigration issues, but did not have a physical in time to do so. He is expected to practice today, but it is not known if he will dress for the Carolina game.
First Published February 1, 2008 5:00 AM