Maple Leafs-Penguins Preview


Sidney Crosby is nearing his much-anticipated return to the lineup, though the face of the Pittsburgh Penguins isn't about to rush anything.

Given how well Pittsburgh has been playing without him, Crosby can take all the time he needs.

The Penguins seek their seventh consecutive victory Wednesday night when they host the fading Toronto Maple Leafs, who could be without forward Joffrey Lupul for the rest of the season.

Crosby went through a full practice including contact drills Tuesday for the first time since again experiencing concussion-like symptoms after a loss to Boston on Dec. 5, though he was hesitant to speculate about when he'll return.

"I'm going to give myself days, for sure, of contact," Crosby said. "If you look at our schedule, we have two more practices, I think, this week. No sooner than Sunday (versus Boston) I would say, but I'm not going to sit here and put a date on it. It would be total guesswork."

Marc-Andre Fleury and Evgeni Malkin are making sure the Penguins (39-21-5) succeed in the meantime.

Fleury made 36 saves and Malkin's assist extended his point streak to eight games as Pittsburgh beat Phoenix 2-1 on Monday.

The Penguins are 18-4-1 since Jan. 13, with Malkin scoring 21 goals and adding 15 assists during that stretch. Fleury has gone 16-2-1 with a 2.31 goals-against average in that span, including a 1.18 GAA while starting five games during the current winning streak.

"He has been real solid in there," coach Dan Bylsma said of Fleury. "The consistency with which he's played has probably been the biggest thing for us."

Fleury made 35 saves and Malkin scored a late equalizer and added the shootout winner in a 5-4 victory over Toronto on Jan. 31, marking the Penguins' only win over the Maple Leafs in three tries this season.

The next day, Malkin was held without a point for only the second time in 19 career games against the Leafs when Toronto beat Brent Johnson 1-0 in the most recent meeting.

The Maple Leafs also beat Johnson 4-3 on Oct. 29, though they probably won't face him again Wednesday as the backup goalie continues to deal with an injury.

Fleury is 5-1-1 in his last seven starts versus Toronto, but he has a 3.19 GAA in that span.

The Maple Leafs (30-29-7) are used to scoring some goals but still losing, having dropped 11 of 13 after falling 5-4 to Boston on Tuesday. They won their first game under new coach Randy Carlyle 3-1 at Montreal on Saturday, but couldn't carry over the momentum, allowing at least four goals for the ninth time in 12 games.

Making matters worse, Lupul - second on the team with 67 points - suffered a separated shoulder in Tuesday's loss and is expected to miss three to four weeks.

Fellow forward Colby Armstrong broke his nose against the Bruins, but he's listed as day-to-day.

Phil Kessel and John-Michael Liles each had a goal and an assist Tuesday, and Mikhail Grabovski - who signed a five-year, $27.5 million contract extension earlier in the day - added a goal.

Toronto has slipped to 12th place in the Eastern Conference, five points behind Winnipeg for the final playoff berth.

"We had lots of positives in the hockey game," Carlyle said. "Any time you score four goals you should feel good about your offensive side of it. But defense wins at this time of year."

Grabovski has five goals and six assists during a seven-game point streak versus the Penguins, including two goals and an assist in January's loss.

Malkin, though, has nine goals and 29 assists - 2.0 points per game - lifetime versus Toronto.