WASHINGTON — The sight of Evgeni Malkin on the ice brought a smile to many in the Pittsburgh Penguins' locker room.
Even knowing they wouldn't have him in the lineup for Game 1 of their second-round series against the Washington Capitals on Thursday night, the back-to-back defending Stanley Cup champions could glean some optimism that the skilled Russian center won't be out long with his apparent leg injury.
"It's always nice to see a guy like him out there," winger Bryan Rust said Thursday after an optional morning skate.
"He's a guy who's obviously really important to our team and brings so much. Just to see him out there and see him getting closer is nice."
Coach Mike Sullivan said Malkin skating "means he's that much closer" to playing, even if the 31-year-old was wearing a white no-contact jersey. Malkin traveling with the team to Washington plus the progress he appears to be making could put him in line to return as soon as Game 2 Sunday afternoon.
"It's great for our team, great for Geno that he's on the ice and skating," Sullivan said. "He's a big part of this team. He's a difference-maker and not an easy guy to replace."
Pittsburgh beat Philadelphia in Game 6 without Malkin, who was injured in Game 5 on April 20 and hadn't practiced since. Absent the 2009 Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP, the Penguins rely more heavily on superstar Sidney Crosby and fellow centers Derick Brassard, Riley Sheahan and Tom Kuhnhackl.
"We have the depth on our roster," Kuhnhackl said. "We've showed that before. At the end, it doesn't matter who's in the lineup and who's out. Everyone's capable of playing the right way."
Few in the NHL can play like Malkin, who has three goals and two assists in five playoff games so far. General manager Jim Rutherford acquiring Brassard at the trade deadline certainly helps Pittsburgh's depth down the middle, but it takes more than one or two players to fill the void without Malkin.
"One of the best players in the world, almost 100 points this year," Brassard said. "You can't really replace a guy who scored 40 goals, but I think as a team we can do a better job and are trying to do a better job."