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Sid and the Kids ride again in Jake Guentzel’s “strong” return to practice

In an exciting first day back, the Pens only have 2/3’s of a roster but still practice hard

Pittsburgh Penguins v Columbus Blue Jackets - Game Three

There were some major “first day of school” vibes for the Pittsburgh Penguins, as their whole team had a normal practice for the first time in four months.

Of course, normal is a relative term in 2020, with a widely different definition than the past. “Normal” today means pro hockey in mid-July while barely anyone flinched learning nine players (mainly depth variety but also Patric Hornqvist) were held off the ice “out of an abundance of caution in an effort to avoid exposure to anyone else within the organization” as a team statement put it. Those players were in proximity to someone who tested positive for the coronavirus.

So, at least the NHL and the Penguins can be applauded for some proactive contact tracing?

“The decision that was made to quarantine the players out of caution is just going to be part of this process,” coach Mike Sullivan said following Monday’s practice. “We’ve talked about a lot of it as a staff and the potential scenarios that could arise and how we would handle them and how we would react to them. It’s one of those things that we’ve got to be ready to adjust and adapt. That’s what we did out there today.”

The idea that one third of the team can just not be available the next day is still such an extraordinary concept, but one that must be managed for now.

And, for now, it hardly took the wind out of the team’s sails due to it being mostly peripheral players. The mood and vibe with less than two weeks of “Phase 3” time before the Pens departing for Toronto surely would have been much different had it been, say Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and six more important players held off the ice.

But the big guns were there, excited and hoping to get the opportunity to train and play the game. Monday was a very joyful day on the rink.

One of the biggest reasons for the Pens to be excited is the return of Jake Guentzel.

“Jake looked terrific,” Mike Sullivan said. “He’s been on the ice for quite a while now. He’s been working through the rehab process. Jake has worked extremely hard to get himself to this point and he looks really strong. We’re excited to get him back into the lineup for obvious reasons.”

The word “strong” to describe Guentzel was a common theme, it was a word Crosby repeated often too.

“It always takes a little bit of time, but he’s looked really good in the [Phase 2 practices],” Crosby said. “He looks comfortable, strong. Really strong. The fact that he has been able to skate for a good chunk of time here will definitely help. But he looks really good. For somebody that has as much of a layoff as he did, he’s done a great job of rehabbing and making sure he’s ready to go. He looks strong right now.”

The encouraging report on Guentzel is welcomed news among Pens fans. Most knew he would be back, and the bar for his return feels very high. But Guentzel has always been a player to meet and exceed expectations and certainly will be counted on to get right back in and be super-productive from the beginning.

The other big question of interest entering practice was which player would join Crosby and Guentzel on a line? That was answered quickly with Conor Sheary getting the nod to reunite the successful line last seen on the ice in 2016-17.

It’s a great opportunity for Sheary, who hasn’t played as well or scored as much as he did since those days. But the slate is wiped clean for Sheary and everyone else in this time of a new normal, which presents a new chance to get after it.

For at least one day yesterday, the Pens were able to do just that. Even if it was with two-thirds of their roster. Now we all just wait to see what the team will look like in the days ahead as they try to navigate this new normal and retain health and safety.