James Neal wasn’t in his regular spot on the second line alongside Evgeni Malkin, but he was thrilled just to be back at a full practice with his Penguins teammates Thursday at Southpointe.
“It’s always exciting to get back in the swing of things and get out there with the guys when you haven’t been around for a long time,” said Neal, who left in the first period of the Oct. 3 season opener because of an unspecified injury.
Neal isn’t expected to return as soon as Saturday when the Penguins play at St. Louis, and it could be awhile beyond that.
“Having the type of injury that didn’t allow him to keep his conditioning, his skating, he’s got a ways [to go] to get back in that shape,” coach Dan Bylsma said. “To have five-on-five play in traffic, that’s another level for James, and [this] was day one of that.”
Neal joined his teammates for a game-day skate Wednesday in New York, but Thursday was his first full practice. He slotted in on the fourth line and participated in all drills, including an intense single-zone, five-on-five session. He is cleared for contact.
“There wasn’t much physicality in [the] practice — that’s normal — but I did some stuff after practice, a little more bumping,” he said. “That’s something I’m going to have to do a little bit more of to get a real good feel of how hard I can go.
“But [it was] my best day so far.”
He’s not ready to set a timetable for his return to the lineup.
“I’ll determine that after a solid week of skating, once I start feeling a little better on the ice,” he said. “I was a full month off and didn’t skate. It’s going to take a couple of weeks to get back to feeling pretty good.”
Neal, 26, had 40 goals in the most recent full NHL season, 2011-12, as Malkin’s right winger. Without Neal, Malkin, a two-time NHL scoring champion, has just three goals and none in the past nine games.
“Me and [Malkin] have a good chemistry going, and we both miss each other when we’ve been out of the lineup,” Neal said. “He’s his normal self. He’s playing hard. I’ll just get back as quick as I can. I’m not going to rush anything.”
No practice for Martin, Dupuis
Two players missed practice — right winger Pascal Dupuis, who left the 5-1 loss Wednesday against the Rangers late in the second period, and defenseman Paul Martin.
Bylsma said both were given “maintenance days,” and offered no other injury details, but said of Dupuis: “We’ll see how he continues to do [today] and toward the weekend for Saturday’s game. At this point in time, it’s not more than that.”
Dupuis watched part of practice in street clothes.
Martin had a shot, a hit and two blocked shots in 26 minutes, 25 seconds of ice time Wednesday in his 600th NHL game.
Moving on after bad loss
There are NHL teams that might need two hands to count their disconcerting losses this season. The Penguins have maybe two, one of them Wednesday.
Bylsma used words such as “disjointed” and “sloppy” to describe the turnover-filled game. But the loss isn’t expected to weigh on the Penguins, whose next game comes on the road against one of the best teams in the Western Conference.
“It’s one game,” said defenseman Matt Niskanen, who is confident things won’t snowball.
“We have the leadership for that,” Niskanen said, motioning with his eyes and his head toward the locker stall of team captain Sidney Crosby.
“With [No.] 87, we don’t have to worry about that.”
Another forward is signed
The Penguins signed forward Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond to a two-year, two-way contract that runs through 2014-15 and is worth $550,000 per season at the NHL level. Then, they put him on waivers. If he is not claimed by noon today, he can remain with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton or be called up.
Letourneau-Leblond, 28, was in training camp and had been playing in Wilkes-Barre on an American Hockey League contract. He has one assist, 42 penalty minutes in 11 games. In 40 NHL games with New Jersey and Calgary, he has three assists, 101 penalty minutes.
Shelly Anderson: email@example.com, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.
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