Defenseman Paul Martin turned playful when asked when he might return to the Penguins lineup.
“I would like to play [tonight], but I don’t think that’s going to happen,” the injured defenseman said of the game against Carolina at Consol Energy Center.
The real answer didn’t take Martin too far into the future, though. He called the game Thursday night at Winnipeg “a long shot” and pointed squarely at the one Saturday against the Wild in his native Minnesota as a realistic target for returning from a broken right hand that required surgery and forced him to miss the past 17 games.
Martin returned to practice Monday. So did forward Joe Vitale, who apparently got a favorable medical report about an undisclosed injury that bumped him up from week to week to, perhaps, day to day.
That’s how the past few days have gone for the Penguins. They broke a three-game losing streak and won two games in a row. They clinched a playoff spot and, with a win tonight, would clinch the Metropolitan Division title. They not only got through those two games without further injuries, but also had the most robust practice attendance Monday in some time.
That included nine defensemen, 13 forwards and all three goaltenders.
“We had a lot of guys on the ice at practice,” defenseman Brooks Orpik said, then deadpanned that “it was nice to get a little bit more rest during the drills.”
The way things are shaping up, the Penguins could be relatively healthy for the start of the playoffs in a little more than two weeks.
Martin and Vitale could be back before then. Second-line center Evgeni Malkin is due back from a foot injury around or just before the start of the postseason. So is forward Chris Conner, who has a broken foot. Forward Marcel Goc is due back from a foot injury perhaps early in the first round.
No wonder the club’s mood was light, although team captain Sidney Crosby offered a word of caution along with a smile.
“We try not to get our hopes too high,” Crosby said. “You don’t know exactly what guys’ schedules are, but you’re just happy to see them back with the team. Just seeing them back at practice is good for them, too. I feel like we’ve been at this spot a few times and had some guys go down. So we’re just trying to keep it even-keel right now.”
While the Penguins likely will hit a whopping 500 man-games lost before the end of season, only one player, winger Pascal Dupuis, has been ruled out for the season, because of knee surgery. The list of those whose return is questionable contains only goaltender Tomas Vokoun (blood clots), who hasn’t played this season; and the biggest unknown, defenseman Kris Letang, who is practicing as he recovers from a stroke.
Letang noted that “I’m on my own plan. I’m not trying to follow anyone else.” Yet he got a little caught up in the spirit of the day.
“I’m happy for them, and happy for the team because I think we need it,” he said of Martin and Vitale returning to practice and the prospect of an influx of players before the playoffs.
“It’s going to give us a good boost, especially when we’re in the last stretch of the season to get ready [for the playoffs].
“They have energy. It’s fun to see.”
Martin got hurt while representing the United States at the Olympics in February. He had been skating — including stickhandling and shooting — separately from the team. Early last week, he had his splint “minimized so he could get more motion in his on-ice activity giving him better mobility,” coach Dan Bylsma said.
The results of X-rays taken Sunday were promising.
“As long as those showed progress and some healing, I could get back to practice as the next step. That’s where we’re at right now,” said Martin, who earlier this season missed 23 games because of a broken leg.
“We did some battle drills at the end [of practice], and it felt better than I thought it would. … I’m seeing light at the end of the tunnel, getting back to practice. Hopefully, I’ll play soon.”
Bylsma can’t wait.
“We’ve been without Paul for quite a few games and quite a time period,” he said. “So to have him step back out there … practicing, working on his game, the thought that we may see him [in the lineup] in the near future is definitely a lift for our team, our defense.”
Vitale originally was slated to miss at least a two-game weekend, but has sat out the past six games.
“It feels good to be back on the team, practicing with the team, getting out there and feeling a part of something again,” he said. “It’s a frustrating thing going on with the injury here. I think I’m getting better every day and hoping for the best.”
Shelly Anderson: email@example.com, 412-263-1721 and Twitter @pgshelly.