BUFFALO, N.Y. — For Ryan Malone, the critical moment of Friday's practice came when he and teammate Marc-Andre Bergeron skated toward the side boards after a puck.
"Battle, 'Bugsy,' battle!" Lightning head athletic trainer Tommy Mulligan yelled.
Malone and Bergeron shook the glass with their collision. Malone skated easily away, the best sign yet the left wing had overcome the upper-body injury that has sidelined him for six games.
"It feels good," Malone said later in the locker room. "We'll see how it feels (today) and play it by ear."
Music to Malone's ears would be getting the call for tonight's game with the Sabres at the First Niagara Center. It would make coach Guy Boucher happy, too.
"All I know is I'm a coach," Boucher said, "and when is he coming back?"
Coaches have asked that in each of Malone's four seasons with Tampa Bay. In only one, 2008-09, has he played 70 games. He can match that this season if he plays in the team's final 29.
The Lightning, precariously on the edge of the playoff race, could use him.
At 6 feet 4, 219 pounds, the Pittsburgh native, with 10 goals and 27 points in 41 games, brings a physical presence the team otherwise does not have. He plays on the power play and penalty kill, gets to the front of the net and bangs bodies.
But it is Malone's willingness to, as Boucher said, "bring the physicality," that exposes him to harm.
"It's really hard to put into words the kind of player he is, the sacrifices he can make for the team," teammate J.T. Wyman said. "He's willing to do the things that need to be done, sacrifice his body; a true leader."
Malone, 32, has missed 12 games this season. Hip and groin issues and a broken hand slowed him in 2008-09. A knee injury helped limit him to 69 games in 2009-10.
He played only 54 games last season because of groin injuries, and shoulder surgery last summer fixed an injury with which he played the 2011 playoffs.
His current injury might be the most frustrating, Malone said, because it stopped an eight-game stretch in which he had three goals and seven points.
"I thought I was finally playing well and healthy again," he said. "I kind of got going and had a setback. Everything happens for a reason. That's all I can say."
Malone never says much about his injuries. To keep playing, he wouldn't tell his parents he was sick. Once, he had mononucleosis, he said, once pneumonia.
When asked if his current injury is related to any he had previously, Malone said, "I think you can say yes because all the body ties together."
Seriously, though, "it just comes with playing and getting older with the game," he said. "Especially in the playoffs, it's like being in a car crash every night. That's the kind of toll it takes on your body."
Not that Malone would change the way he plays.
"I don't think I would have a job," he said. "Just make sure your body is in good support when you throw your weight around. Other than that, it's hockey. You've got to play hard. I don't know what else to do."
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]