Ottawa defenseman Sergei Gonchar and Penguins center Evgeni Malkin have been close for years. Malkin was Gonchar's tenant for part of the time that Gonchar played with the Penguins.
The two also use the same summer training facility in Moscow.
This year, Gonchar knew Malkin was rehabilitating from knee surgery during the offseason, but he also noticed that his former teammate was working out with more purpose.
Despite being slowed early by soreness in the knee, Malkin has had a strong first quarter this season. He had 18 points in 15 games before facing the Senators Friday night at Consol Energy Center.
"To me, it seems like he is making that next step," Gonchar said. "He's maturing. He is more serious about his job. He was really pushing [in the summer].
"Another thing is, he didn't have as successful a season as everybody expected him to have [before the injury in 2010-11], and he obviously was hoping he would play better.
"It seems like that maturity and that next step is coming in, and, because of it, he is doing better -- not only on the ice but also preparing off the ice."
Gonchar said Malkin showed a deep commitment to training when Penguins strength coach Mike Kadar visited Russia for nearly two weeks in the summer.
"He was mentally ready for it," Gonchar said. "He was willing to do whatever it takes to make sure he was ready for the season.
"He was there every morning, doing whatever Mike was telling him to do."
Was Gonchar also a willing participant in Kadar's punishing workout plan?
"No," he said, laughing. "I had a different program."
The timing worked out well for a couple of Ottawa players. It was standard procedure for the Senators to come to town a day before their game against the Penguins, but, in this case, it gave them a chance to catch up over Thanksgiving dinner.
Gonchar ate at Malkin's home.
"His girlfriend made a good meal for us, and it was a good time," Gonchar said.
Senators winger Milan Michalek joined the family of his brother, Penguins defenseman Zbynek Michalek, for a holiday dinner.
"The turkey was pretty good," said Milan, who, at 6 feet 2, 225 pounds is noticeably bigger than the 6-2, 210-pound Zbynek.
So who ate more?
"Probably him." Milan said. "He eats a lot more than me, but he's much skinnier. I don't know how that works."
The game tonight at Montreal will mark back-to-back games and three games in four nights for the Penguins. Center Sidney Crosby welcomes the tough schedule.
"I'm glad I'm kind of getting into it right away," said Crosby, who made his season debut Monday after missing more than 10 months because of a concussion.
"That's what I wanted. I think it will be good. You've got to go through it to get used to it."
He wasn't looking for reduced playing time; in fact, it was the opposite.
"The more [minutes], the better, and, hopefully, I'll be able to handle it," Crosby said. "I don't see that being a problem."
After being a healthy scratch for two games in a row, rookie Joe Vitale returned to the Penguins lineup. Veteran Richard Park, who had filled the fourth-line center role in those two games, was scratched.
Vitale made the Penguins roster out of training camp because of his tenacious forechecking, faceoffs and physical play.
Coach Dan Bylsma indicated there's a numbers crunch, with Crosby and winger Tyler Kennedy having recently returned to the lineup after concussions.
"It's made the competition in that spot and the role ... maybe even more important," Bylsma said.
"Faceoffs, penalty kill -- those things have played a role in the competition there between Richard Park and Joe Vitale."
Going into the game, Vitale had one goal, four points, had won 55.2 percent of his faceoffs and had averaged 10:54 of ice time, but just 12 seconds of that shorthanded.
Decisions on the forwards could get even tougher when Dustin Jeffrey returns from a knee injury.
The other healthy scratch was winger Steve MacIntyre.
The Penguins honored equipment manager Dana Heinze, who was working his 1,500th pro game.