The Pittsburgh Penguins haven't played a game since Monday. That figures to be a problem for the Buffalo Sabres. Never mind the Stanley Cup champs' 12-0-1 record in their last 13 games against the Sabres. Or their 21-4-1 mark against Buffalo since the calendar turned to 2010 to start a new decade.
And now you can add this: Evgeni Malkin is coming back from injury to play in tonight's game. The future Hall of Famer has missed the last four games with an upper body injury but practiced fully Thursday and skated fully today in KeyBank Center.
"He'll be a game-time decision," said coach Mike Sullivan. "But he looks pretty strong right now."
Malkin has seven goals and 14 assists this season and his 21 points are third on the team to Phil Kessel (11-21-32) and Sidney Crosby (10-15-25).
The storyline for the Pens tonight will be twofold: The debut of rookie Tristan Jarry as the starting goaltender in the wake of Matt Murray's injury and the return of defenseman Ian Cole after he sat out the last three games as a healthy scratch and then endured a week of trade rumors.
Jarry started three games as Murray's backup this year and replaced Murray after the starter was injured Monday against Philadelphia. For the season he's 2-0-2/2.83/.907. The new backup is Casey DeSmith, 26, who might get his first NHL start Saturday night in PPG Paints Arena against the Sabres.
If there's any team you might throw rookies in against, it would be the Sabres. They are the NHL's lowest-scoring club and have been shut out two games in a row. Buffalo has never endured three straight shutouts since joining the NHL in 1970.
"We're going to work with them daily," Sullivan said of his netminders. "They're going to try to stop the puck every day and do everything within their power to improve and get better. When the games come and they're called upon to play, our expectation is they make the timely save for us to give an opportunity to win games. Both these guys are quality goaltenders. They're young but they're quality. We believe in them and we have faith in them."
Cole has seemingly run afoul of Sullivan at times this year. His average ice time has slipped from 19:49 per game to 16:50 while his plus-minus has gone from plus-26 to minus-5. That said, most Pens have ugly plus-minus figures because of three road losses earlier in the season by a combined score of 24-3. Cole will return tonight while former Sabre Chad Ruhwedel will sit out as a healthy scratch.
"I have to keep going, keep working hard and hopefully everything will sort itself out," Cole said today. "It's one of those things that you don't have a ton of control over. It's unfortunate but you keep working hard and it will take care of itself."