It's Neal vs. Kessel in sideshow
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Just as the Penguins have been thrilled with the goal production of winger James Neal, the Toronto Maple Leafs have thrived in part because of Phil Kessel's scoring.
Those two were tied for the NHL lead with nine goals each before games Friday night and will face each other tonight when the Penguins visit Air Canada Centre.
Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury expects to get a challenge from Kessel.
"I wouldn't know everybody's stats on the other team, but you've got to be aware of a couple of guys on the other team that are more dangerous," Fleury said Friday after practice at Consol Energy Center.
Kessel would be one of those guys for the Maple Leafs.
"It just seems like everything's going his way right now," Fleury said. "I'll definitely have to keep an eye on him. He's dangerous around the net."
The Penguins lead the NHL with 18 points. Toronto leads the Northeast Division with 13 points and has played three fewer games than the Penguins.
The Maple Leafs ranked fourth in the league with an average of 3.22 goals a game before Friday. As a comparison, the Penguins averaged 2.83.
"They're an explosive team right now," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "This is kind of the way they were playing last year at the end of the season when they were pushing for the playoffs."
The Penguins held an optional skate at Consol Energy Center with nine attendees -- defensemen Matt Niskanen, Deryk Engelland and Ben Lovejoy; forwards Mark Letestu, Steve MacIntyre, Joe Vitale and Sidney Crosby; and goaltenders Fleury and Brent Johnson.
Crosby, cleared for contact but not for games as he comes back from a concussion, did not travel to Toronto.
The day off was an especially welcome one for center Evgeni Malkin, who has played the past two games after missing five in a row and seven overall because of soreness related to his surgically repaired right knee.
He has been sitting out practices recently, and after he scored the winning shootout goal Thursday against the New York Islanders, he cracked, "I hope tomorrow's a day off again."
Malkin said managing his practice time has helped.
"It's a big injury. I know it's sometimes [going to be] sore," he said. "I needed a couple of days off, but I skated in the mornings and played in the games. It's so much better because I didn't play five games. If I wasn't ready, I wouldn't play."
The Penguins sort of had a 10th player at the optional practice: a life-size, full-color fiberglass cutout of defenseman Brooks Orpik, complete with a wooden stand and a way to attach a stick with Velcro.
He stood guard in the slot as players skated, passed and shot around him.
"It's amazing. Sometimes, he's not even moving and he's a pretty good defender," Niskanen said. "It looks kind of corny, and it's kind of funny, but it actually is a good tool to use."
One Fleury didn't mind having in front of him. "He made a couple of blocks," the goalie said.
The coaching staff commissioned the cutout as a practice aid. Injured players who have skated separately have been using it, but this was the first practice for Orpik's immobile alter ego.
Bylsma said cutouts of two other defensemen, Kris Letang and Paul Martin, have been ordered.
Vitale is from St. Louis, a diehard Cardinals fan, and has friends from the school district there that produced third baseman David Freese. So he was ecstatic to watch Freese hit a walkoff home run Thursday in the 11th inning for a 10-9 win in Game 6 of the World Series.
"It's awesome for him," Vitale said. "My wife and I went out to dinner, and I got a couple of texts about how crazy the game was, so I was speeding back and made it back for the bottom of the ninth. We stayed up and watched the whole thing."
Vitale wasn't planning to stay up Friday to watch past the early innings of Game 7 because of the Penguins game tonight, but he expected to have a difficult time getting to sleep.
First Published October 29, 2011 12:00 am