The Pittsburgh Penguins head to Washington for a rivalry game Friday against the Capitals with a razor-thin complement of players, at least at the forward spot. That includes winger Jason Zucker, who missed a second straight day of practice Thursday.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said Zucker had a “maintenance day” Thursday, the same explanation he gave for Zucker missing Wednesday’s session at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex. Pretty obviously, Zucker is dealing with some sort of malady, but the team is counting on him being able to play against the Capitals — the first of back-to-back games, with one at home Saturday against the Anaheim Ducks.
After it was disclosed Wednesday that team leading scorer and top-line winger Jake Guentzel will be out on a week-to-week basis because of an injury believed to involve his right hand, the Penguins are carrying no extra forwards. Bryan Rust also is out on a week-to-week basis and has not resumed skating.
Recalling anyone from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, if needed, would be problematic. That American Hockey League affiliate team has been effectively shut down because of unspecified COVID-19 issues. Sullivan said Wednesday the Penguins would be reluctant to promote someone for that reason.
Zucker has four goals, 10 points in 25 games this season as a top-six forward.
The lines Thursday without Guentzel and Zucker looked like this:
Evan Rodrigues-Sidney Crosby-Kasperi Kapenen
Drew O’Connor-Jeff Carter-Danton Heinen
Dominik Simon-Brian Boyle-Sam Lafferty
In addition, Simon has joined the top power play unit, along with Crosby, Carter, Rodrigues and Kris Letang.
“We’re looking for certain options — left shots, right shots, guys that have particular strengths in certain areas that we think complement the group,” Sullivan said of Simon’s spot on the top unit.
Penguins winger Evgeni Malkin again joined practice in a non-contact jersey. He left the session early, but Sullivan explained that the remaining drills, mostly special teams, included contact and were off-limits for Malkin. Sullivan ensured what he has been saying for a while — that they are encouraged by the progress made by Malkin, who is coming off offseason knee surgery.
Sullivan previously has said the Penguins have a target date for Malkin’s return to games but declined to divulge that. Various estimated timelines have had Malkin returning sometime in December, but he will first have to get a medical OK to take contact in practice and then show that he can do that without any problems.
To make up for the fact that would not be able to finish practice Friday, Malkin went on the ice about 40 minutes early for an individual workout: