The Pittsburgh Penguins got one of their best players back in their previous game, and the effect was undeniable.
They could be in line for another boost with the possible return of defenseman Paul Martin on Thursday night against the Flyers in Philadelphia.
The Penguins (15-8-0) went 2-2-0 without Evgeni Malkin after he suffered a concussion from a collision into the boards in a win over Florida on Feb. 22. Malkin experienced short-term memory loss and headaches while he was out but was able to return Monday, tallying a goal and an assist in a 4-3 win over Tampa Bay.
The reigning league MVP has five scores and 18 assists in 19 games for a team that averages 3.5 goals, one of the top marks in the NHL.
"He had guys shaking their heads at how strong he was (in Sunday's practice)," coach Dan Bylsma said of Malkin. "They were pretty amazed at how physical and strong he was on the puck, so to see him come out and play that way and be confident, I'm not real surprised."
Malkin has career highs in goals (21) and assists (34) in 38 regular-season games against the Flyers, and had a goal and an assist in a 6-5 home loss to Philadelphia on Feb. 20. Each team scored three times in the third period, and Jakub Voracek's go-ahead goal with 1:31 remaining completed a hat trick and lifted the Flyers to their 10th win in the last 15 meetings, which includes the playoffs.
Martin had a career high-tying three assists in the matchup two weeks ago - one of just two losses in 10 games for Pittsburgh when he has at least one point. He is listed as day-to-day with a lower-body injury and hasn't played since Feb. 28, but returned to practice Tuesday.
The team's sixth-leading scorer with 15 points is cautious about returning too soon after taking only a day off for rest last week before aggravating the injury.
"That's the hard part as a player, you want to be in there and want to play, but you have to be smart about it in the short season, playing every other day," Martin told the team's official website. "You want to be in there, but you have to make sure you're ready down the stretch. It's a tough call."
The inconsistent Flyers (11-12-1) struggled with line changes after defenseman Nicklas Grossmann left following the first period Tuesday against the New York Rangers because of a lower-body injury. That left the Flyers with five defensemen to rotate for the game's remainder, ending in a 4-2 loss.
Two of the goals Philadelphia allowed came when Rick Nash took advantage of disjointed substitutions that put the Flyers out of position. They have a slim margin for such defensive errors, as their goalies' .892 save percentage is one of the worst in the NHL.
Philadelphia has allowed four or more goals in three of its last six games - all losses - and in six of the last 10. Despite the defensive letdowns, the Flyers' power play has executed well over the last six contests, scoring eight times on 25 chances.
"All of our games are big but the next game is going to be the biggest game of the season," said Claude Giroux, second on the team with 23 points. "We need to find a way to motivate ourselves whoever the other team is and we have to find a way to play our best and keep getting better as a team."
Voracek, Philadelphia's leader with 27 points, has 12 points over his last nine games against the Penguins.
Sidney Crosby, the NHL leader with 36 points, has four goals and seven assists in his last five games.
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