The Pittsburgh Penguins enter Tuesday's game at Anaheim in contention in the deep Metropolitan Division despite not having future Hall of Fame forward Evgeni Malkin yet this season due to knee surgery in the summer, but the Russian is expected to make his debut against the Ducks, who likely are without No. 1 goaltender John Gibson again. The Pens are -175 favorites at Caesars Sportsbook.
While Malkin is officially being called a "game-time decision" by coach Mike Sullivan, he practiced in full Monday and skated between Jeff Carter and Kasperi Kapanen while working on the top power-play unit. NHL teams are notoriously vague when it comes to injuries and it has never been said officially what the June 4 surgery was for on Malkin's knee, but multiple reports are that it was for a torn ACL. Those usually take at least 7-9 months to return from, so Malkin would be on the front end of that.
Malkin, a four-time All-Star and 2015 Hart Trophy winner, could only boost a power play that ranks 22nd in the league.
"His playmaking ability, his one timer… he's just such an elite offensive player, the way he thinks the game and his ability to execute," Sullivan said. "He also brings a certain level of instinctive play that's unpredictable. It's hard to prepare for, it's hard to game plan. Because he has the ability to go off the grid with respect to the game plan offensively. He just sees the ice so well. He brings a certain level of unpredictability to our offense."
Pittsburgh has been hammered by injury and COVID all season, including Sidney Crosby, but is getting nearly whole as if Malkin plays tonight, the only key player still out is winger Bryan Rust (20 points). He landed in COVID protocols over the weekend. Backup goalie Casey DeSmith also is in protocols. Louis Domingue is the backup currently to Tristan Jarry (17-6-4, 1.94 GAA, .931 SV).
Anaheim was one of the NHL's worst teams last season but has overachieved this year in large part due to Gibson, who is 12-9-6 with a 2.64 GAA and .917 SV. He tested positive for COVID last week and is not expected to be cleared by tonight, so it should be Anthony Stolarz (6-3-1, 2.22 GAA, .931 SV) in net. Anaheim is without a few key guys still in protocols or due to injury.
The Ducks' Trevor Zegras is a top Calder Trophy candidate as he leads NHL rookies in points per game (0.84) and has 22 points (seven goals, 15 assists) in his past 19 games.
The Penguins are 10-5-0 in their last 15 games vs. the Ducks. Pittsburgh beat visiting Anaheim 1-0 on Dec. 11 with DeSmith pitching the shutout. Gibson stopped 15 of 16 shots through two periods for Anaheim before he left with a lower-body injury and was replaced by Stolarz.
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