Penguins notebook: Niskanen hopes to return to lineup today
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PHILADELPHIA -- Under different circumstances, it might not be an issue. Certainly, it wouldn't be a pressing one.
But with the Penguins down, 2-0, in their opening-round playoff series against Philadelphia heading into Game 3 at 3:08 p.m. today at the Wells Fargo Center, defenseman Matt Niskanen won't rule out returning to the lineup even if he's not completely healthy.
Niskanen, who missed the past four games with what is believed to be a shoulder injury, returned to practice Saturday, then talked like a man who will do everything possible to play this afternoon.
"In a perfect world, I'd say, 'No. You're ready when you're ready,' " he said after the workout. "But there's no point in sitting out if our backs are against the wall. If some of the things that have been keeping me out are ready, I'll be in there as soon as I can. A lot of players play with pain at this time of year."
Niskanen added that strength in his injured area, not pain tolerance, is the factor that will determine whether he plays today. Coach Dan Bylsma echoed that assessment, saying Niskanen will play "if he has the strength back in his injury."
If Niskanen returns, he presumably would replace Ben Lovejoy, who struggled in an 8-5 loss in Game 2 Friday at Consol Energy Center.
Niskanen spent that evening in street clothes, something he obviously didn't enjoy.
"It's just killing me, being in the press box," Niskanen said. "You play your butt off all year to be in this playoff series and try to help you team.
"Especially when things aren't going right, it really hurts to watch."
The Penguins proved throughout the regular season that they're capable of playing well defensively, but had some trouble with that during the stretch drive. And considering that they squandered multiple-goal leads in each of the first two games against Philadelphia, that problem still hasn't been exorcised.
"It's not something you can just turn on, but all year we've made a conscious effort to play well defensively," center Sidney Crosby said. "We've been good with leads. We know what to do. It's just a matter of making sure we do it."
Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has been the most obvious victim of their defensive lapses.
But while he certainly is not the reason the Penguins trail in the series, Fleury volunteered Saturday that he could "maybe make more saves." One he'd like another chance on was Jaromir Jagr's winner in Game 2, when Fleury gave up a big rebound that allowed Jagr to score from the left circle.
"The puck just bounced off my blade right back to the slot," Fleury said. "I was not happy with that one."
Jakub Voracek's age still was being measured in months when Jagr was drafted fifth overall by the Penguins in 1990, and Voracek grew up in Kladno, Czech Republic, idolizing his hometown hero.
He even had a poster of Jagr in his room.
"I think every kid had his poster on their wall during the '90s. He's huge back home," Voracek, 22, said. "I don't think he can go anywhere [in that country] without getting recognized."
That makes the Flyers winger's relationship with Jagr, 40, all the more astounding to him.
"When I made it to Columbus [the team that drafted him seventh overall in 20'07], it was my dream to play against him one day," Voracek said. "And then he left for Russia, so I thought, 'OK, that might be it.' Then, we met at the world championships. And, all of a sudden, I'm playing with him on the same team. It's pretty cool."
Jagr returned from three seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League to sign with Philadelphia last summer.
Jagr scored the winner in Game 2, his 78th playoff goal, after Voracek had the overtime winner in Game 1, his first playoff goal.
Jagr has been credited with helping the Flyers' large pool of young players, and Voracek feels especially grateful. They share more than a language and love of hockey.
"I'm basically with him every day because we live close to each other," Voracek said. "We drive in together to the practices. He's been around for such a long time that his experience is priceless."
Penguins center Evgeni Malkin, the favorite to be named the NHL's regular-season MVP, wasn't a dominant presence in the first two games.
He, like linemates Chris Kunitz and James Neal, has two points. Bylsma, though, suggested that Malkin and his wingers have been more effective than some might realize.
"The last game, they played in the offensive zone, were effective there, had shifts there, scored two power-play goals," he said. "I thought the last game was a lot of what we need from them. If we had won those two games, we'd think Malkin was playing better than when we're down, 2-0."
Penguins defenseman Kris Letang, on Game 3: "We'll see the true face of our team. We'll see if guys have character. We'll prove a lot." ... Crosby, on his team dealing with adversity: "We've proven, time after time, that we do react well to those situations. ... We're tested here, and we have to respond." ... Flyers forward James van Riemsdyk (broken left foot) practiced for the first time but is not expected to play today.
First Published April 15, 2012 12:00 am