Pittsburgh Penguins' Evgeni Malkin practices, nearing return

PITTSBURGH -- Penguins center Evgeni Malkin practiced Wednesday, indicating he is near a return from a lower-body injury that's kept him out since mid-March.

Malkin wore a white "no contact" jersey during Pittsburgh's skate, but coach Mike Sullivan said the Russian star was a full participant and will travel with the Penguins when they begin a four-game road trip on Thursday in Washington.

Malkin hasn't played since March 16, though Pittsburgh has fared well without him. The Penguins are 14-5-2 during Malkin's extended absence and are in a tight four-team race with Washington, Boston and the New York Islanders for the East Division title. The teams are separated by six points with less than two weeks left in the regular season.

Malkin has eight goals and 16 assists in 29 games this season and was playing well before getting hurt in a loss to Boston on March 16.

"I think [Malkin and I] had some good chemistry going on when we were both playing," Penguins forward Kasperi Kapanen said Wednesday. "Very excited for him to come back. Hope it's soon."

Sullivan typically likes to have injured players participate in at least one if not multiple full-contact practices before returning to play. Pittsburgh is scheduled to have a practice on Friday in Washington but won't do so again until May 7.

The team's four-game road swing starts with games against the first-place Capitals on Thursday and Saturday and wraps up with a back-to-back set in Philadelphia next Monday and Tuesday. The Penguins finish the regular season by hosting Buffalo on May 6 and May 8.