Winger Kunitz champs at bit to return to action
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Tony Granato has no formal medical training.
He has been examined and treated by plenty of doctors over the years, but rarely, if ever, is mistaken for one.
Granato, one of the Penguins' assistant coaches, didn't have to study a chart or consult with a specialist to conclude that left winger Chris Kunitz is just about ready to return to the lineup.
Not when Granato has seen most of the vital signs while watching Kunitz skate with his teammates during the past week or so.
"He's got great jump in practice, is shooting the puck really well," Granato said. "You can see in his face that he's healthy again."
Kunitz, who had surgery Jan. 6 to repair a torn abdominal muscle, could be back in uniform as early as Saturday, when the Penguins visit Montreal at 2:08 p.m.
That's far from guaranteed at this point, however. For while Kunitz said he has gotten all the necessary clearances from his surgeon, William C. Meyers, there still are a few hurdles to get over: like not experiencing any problems in the wake of participating in Wednesday's workout at Mellon Arena, where Kunitz was reunited with his usual linemates, Sidney Crosby and Bill Guerin.
"If I feel good [today], I think it would be [possible to play against the Canadiens]," Kunitz said. "I've just got to wait until [today], see how I feel. Go to the gym and fatigue it a little more, and see how it responds."
He was quick to attach a couple of other asterisks, too -- most notably that playing in the game in Montreal, followed by one in Washington at 12:08 Sunday afternoon, might be a bit much.
"I don't know if with the back-to-back [games] and the short [turnaround] that [returning this weekend] is even possible," he said.
Even that somewhat murky assessment is more encouraging than the one facing forward Max Talbot, who has what is believed to be a groin injury and adjourned to the locker room just 15 minutes into Wednesday's workout.
"Obviously, not a good sign in terms of him progressing," coach Dan Bylsma said.
If the setback Wednesday was severe enough -- team officials offered no insight on that -- it's conceivable that Talbot will be told to shut down until after the Olympic break later this month. That would keep him off skates until a practice Feb. 24.
Ten days ago, general manager Ray Shero suggested the Penguins might do that with Kunitz, just to be safe. Kunitz, though, said he doesn't want to wait if there is no clear medical reason for it.
"If I'm healthy and ready to go, I might as well play," he said.
There is reason to believe that, once he overcomes conditioning and timing issues, Kunitz could be more effective than he was before having his surgery. He had six goals and 14 assists in 30 games before the operation, and had been bothered by his injury for most of the season.
An injury like his can affect a player's skating, shooting and ability to battle for loose pucks. All are key elements in Kunitz's game, and he suggested that he might have altered his style to compensate.
"Maybe [I was] ... doing different things that I don't normally do in my game," he said.
His teammates figured something was amiss, even if they didn't know what.
"You can tell when a guy is 100 percent and when he's not," Guerin said. "Especially with something like that, it's impossible to feel good, impossible to do what you're used to doing.
"[Kunitz] would never complain, never say anything, but you just know."
Even though Kunitz's problem was serious enough that it required surgery, he doesn't know exactly when or why it happened.
"I lot of guys think they feel a pop or something, but I never did," he said. "I just noticed gradually that it was tough to get out of bed, tough to get over the boards, things like that."
Things that, by Wednesday, largely had been reduced to bad memories. And while Kunitz is wary of predicting that he will be playing again by this weekend, no one seems to doubt that he will be back soon.
"He's smiling, and having fun out there," Granato said. "He knows he's getting close to returning."
NOTES -- Bylsma said he likes what he has seen of Jordan Staal and Evgeni Malkin as linemates, but declined to predict how long they will remain together because "no one is going to write anything in stone right now." ... Defenseman Jay McKee, who missed the Penguins' 5-4 victory Monday against Buffalo with an undisclosed injury, practiced Wednesday. ... The Penguins will have today off.