Penguins' Evgeni Malkin practices for first time since March 11

CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. -- Pittsburgh Penguins star center Evgeni Malkin on Thursday practiced with his teammates for the first time since suffering an upper-body injury on March 11 and hopes to play in the first-round playoff series against the New York Rangers.

"Every day it's better," Malkin said after an optional but lively workout at the team's suburban practice facility.

Asked whether he thought he would be able to play against the Rangers, Malkin seemed hopeful.

"Well, yeah, I think so," he said. "Maybe. I don't know when, but as soon as possible."

The Penguins won Game 1 of the best-of-seven series against the Rangers 5-2 on Wednesday night. Game 2 is Saturday.

Coach Mike Sullivan echoed Malkin's optimism about returning before the end of this series.

"I don't really have a timeline, but certainly that's our hope," Sullivan said. "We think, obviously, he's a difference-maker. He's an elite player. We're a better team when he's in our lineup, and we'll put him in our lineup when all of us that are involved with his health and where he's at physically believe that we can put him in a position to be successful and that he can help us win."

Sullivan was impressed with Malkin's workout Thursday, which included some 3-on-3 game simulation.

"I thought he looked really strong," Sullivan said. "It's the first time that he joined the rest of the team as far as some of the drills. He was involved in contact. I thought he looked really strong. He's been working all along on his conditioning and making sure that he stays with that. I think that's really going to help him as far as expediting his return."

Malkin appeared to hurt his shoulder when he was taken heavily into the boards during a game March 11 against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Malkin is a former league MVP, two-time NHL scoring champion and playoff MVP. He was also named rookie of the year in 2007.

In other injury news, netminder Marc-Andre Fleury was again a practice participant even though he could not dress for Game 1 Wednesday as he tries to recover from a concussion.

Fleury joked that he had to be careful about what he said to reporters but said he continues to get better and did not rule out playing in Game 2 on Saturday afternoon.

"Hopefully it's good enough for Saturday," Fleury said.

He said the decision not to play Wednesday was made with input from Fleury and doctors, and Sullivan considers him day-to-day.