It has been a long time coming, or at least it felt like it for Pittsburgh Penguins forward James Neal, who returned to a full practice on Thursday.
Neal has been recovering from a lower body injury and has been cleared for everything in practice despite not playing since re-aggravating his injury in the Penguins’ season opener on October 3. “It’s always exciting to get back out there in the swing of things and get out there with the guys you haven’t been around in a long time,” Neal told the team website.
He has been taking some contact throughout drills Thursday and will continue to do so going into next week. There is no doubt the Penguins could use him, but Evgeni Malkin in particular is itching to get his favorite linemate back. However, the coaching staff wants to be sure they do not rush things.
Malkin is third on the team in scoring but has netted just three goals in 16 games. His 11 assists rank second behind Sidney Crosby. He has seen his fair share of linemates during Neal’s absence from Jussi Jokinen, Chuck Kobasew, Jayson Megna and Beau Bennett. When asked if Malkin is pushing and motivating the Penguins’ winger to get 100 percent healthy, Neal told reporters he has been “quiet.”
“Obviously I’ll get back as fast as I can,” Neal said. “Me and Geno have a good chemistry going and we’ve both missed each other when out of the lineup. Like I said, I’ll get back as soon as I can and I’m not going to rush anything.”
Pittsburgh is still missing other pieces to their forwards but have been relying on some of the younger talent to fill in until those players return. When all said and done, Neal will return to the second line with Malkin alongside Megna or Jokinen.