Malkin nears return as Penguins face Blue Jackets

Published on NewsOK Modified: April 15, 2014 at 3:01 pm •  Published: April 15, 2014

PITTSBURGH (AP) — The Columbus Blue Jackets are the closest NHL team to the Pittsburgh Penguins, at least geographically. The two franchises are separated by 185 miles of highway.

Their resumes and the expectations that come with them, however, are worlds apart.

The next postseason game Columbus wins will be its first since entering the league in 2000. Call it the byproduct of a dozen seasons spent mostly as so much expansion fodder for the top-heavy Western Conference.

Moved to the Eastern Conference as part of realignment, the Blue Jackets have made no secret of their desire to start a regional rivalry with the Penguins. The foundation can be laid over the next two weeks as they meet in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Game 1 is Wednesday night in Pittsburgh, where the hosts are doing their best to not get overconfident despite sweeping all five regular season games between the clubs, outscoring Columbus 16-8 in the process.

"They were good hockey games," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "I don't think you can say 'Hey we won five' and that's going to have some large bearing on this series."

Maybe, though the chasm in experience level between the two teams will likely only grow deeper in the opener. Penguins center Evgeni Malkin practiced with his teammates on Tuesday for the first time since injuring his foot March 23.

The 2012 league MVP said he feels "great" though his status won't be determined until shortly before faceoff. His presence would make the Metropolitan Division champions and perennial Stanley Cup contenders as healthy as they've been all year.

It's not the same for Columbus, which will be without veteran forward Nathan Horton for the entire series and center R.J. Umberger and winger Nick Foligno for Game 1 because of lingering injuries. The Blue Jackets figure it's just one more thing to overcome.

"We're the underdog in the series," forward Matt Calvert said. "We like being in that position."

Then again, they should be used to it.

Five things to look for in what the Penguins hope will be a long playoff stretch.

FOCUSED FLEURY: Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is just 14-16 in the postseason since helping Pittsburgh to the franchise's third Cup in 2009 and was benched during last year's run to the conference finals. He carried his typical heavy workload during the regular season and finished tied for second in the NHL with 39 wins. Bylsma has praised Fleury for making needed adjustments and his teammates certainly appear to have his back.

Continue reading this story on the...