Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Neal Returns to Full Practice

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Neal Returns to Full Practice

Article excerpt

James Neal wasn't in his regular spot on the second line alongside Evgeni Malkin, but he was thrilled just to be back at a full practice with his Penguins teammates Thursday at Southpointe.

"It's always exciting to get back in the swing of things and get out there with the guys when you haven't been around for a long time," said Neal, who left in the first period of the Oct. 3 season opener because of an unspecified injury.

Neal isn't expected to return as soon as Saturday when the Penguins play at St. Louis, and it could be awhile beyond that.

"Having the type of injury that didn't allow him to keep his conditioning, his skating, he's got a ways [to go] to get back in that shape," coach Dan Bylsma said. "To have five-on-five play in traffic, that's another level for James, and [this] was day one of that."

Neal joined his teammates for a game-day skate Wednesday in New York, but Thursday was his first full practice. He slotted in on the fourth line and participated in all drills, including an intense single-zone, five-on-five session. He is cleared for contact.

"There wasn't much physicality in [the] practice -- that's normal -- but I did some stuff after practice, a little more bumping," he said. "That's something I'm going to have to do a little bit more of to get a real good feel of how hard I can go.

"But [it was] my best day so far."

He's not ready to set a timetable for his return to the lineup.

"I'll determine that after a solid week of skating, once I start feeling a little better on the ice," he said. "I was a full month off and didn't skate. It's going to take a couple of weeks to get back to feeling pretty good."

Neal, 26, had 40 goals in the most recent full NHL season, 2011- 12, as Malkin's right winger. Without Neal, Malkin, a two-time NHL scoring champion, has just three goals and none in the past nine games.

"Me and [Malkin] have a good chemistry going, and we both miss each other when we've been out of the lineup," Neal said. "He's his normal self. …

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