It has been 20 days since the Penguins previously played a game.
Even though some of them played in four, five or six games at the Sochi Olympics and the others have practiced for a week, they aren’t deluding themselves about being in top form tonight when the Montreal Canadiens visit Consol Energy Center.
“There’s going to be rust,” Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen said Wednesday. “I don’t think any team is going to be at the same level they were at before the break. Maybe a few individuals, guys who played, will be fine. I know our group, it’s not going to be perfect the first period [tonight].
“Hopefully, it comes back quickly. That’s got to be our focus — get back to that level as soon as we can. Whether it takes a period, two games or whatever it is, we’ve got to get back there soon.”
Coach Dan Bylsma, who coached Team USA at the Olympics, oversaw his second practice since returning, and first with the full squad after some of the club’s Olympians were given an extra day or two off.
“We did a few things systematic-wise, and, in seven minutes, we see our players fall right back into the detail and habit we need to have,” Bylsma said.
But he’s not kidding himself any more than Niskanen is.
After tonight, the Penguins’ next game will be played outdoors Saturday night against the Chicago Blackhawks at Soldier Field in Chicago, part of the NHL’s Stadium Series.
Those games, with the ice and weather conditions, can be challenging without any rust issues.
“We’re getting ready for two games that you shouldn’t be expecting to be masterpieces of execution,” Bylsma said.
No Price tonight
Penguins forwards Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz won’t have to face one of their teammates from Sochi.
Montreal goaltender Carey Price helped Team Canada win the gold medal while nursing a leg injury of some kind. Price took the ice for Montreal’s game-day skate Wednesday, but quickly retreated and was ruled out of the game Wednesday night against Detroit and the one tonight against the Penguins.
Crosby couldn’t hide the fact he knew Price was injured or that he understood how much more impressive that made Price’s performance. Price was 5-0 with a 0.59 goals-against average and a .972 save percentage in Sochi.
“He played really well,” Crosby said. “I think it’s something that didn’t just happen at the Olympics. I think it’s something he’s probably been battling for a while.
“He’s been good all year, but, considering the amount of pressure that’s on a goalie in those circumstances, I think he handled that and the injury pretty well.”
Canadiens backup goaltender Peter Budaj is expected to start tonight instead of Price.
Not so subtle changes
Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury wore new equipment Wednesday in practice. It was designed for the outdoor game.
His helmet is themed like a Steelers football helmet, black with a yellow racing stripe.
“It’s a fun sports city,” Fleury explained. “We cheer for them, go to their games.”
Fleury and backup goaltender Jeff Zatkoff brainstormed weeks ago about designs for the Stadium Series game. Fleury liked the Steelers idea, “especially when [the game Saturday night is] in a football stadium.”
Fleury also sported shiny gold pads, glove and blocker.
The Penguins are trying to make sure three goaltenders will get practice time in the net in practice. Fleury, Zatkoff and Tomas Vokoun, out all season after a blood-clot problem but now cleared to play when he gets back into game shape and sharpness, all need work.
Bylsma said the priorities are to make sure Fleury gets one net for pretty much an entire practice; that Zatkoff gets some playing time with 16 games in March, including three sets of back-to-back games; and that Vokoun faces enough shots and gets enough practice time to get game-ready.
“We’re going to have to invent ways to make that all happen,” Bylsma said.
Shelly Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.