TAMPA — Ryan Malone was not going to play into the hype, at least not in front of a reporter.
Asked if tonight's matchup with the Penguins at the St. Pete Times Forum is one of those statement games in which potential first-round playoff opponents plant mental seeds and send physical messages, the Lightning wing agreed it is important.
But he also said, "It's more about taking care of what we have to do."
As for facing his former team and his hometown squad in such a huge game, Malone said more important is finding his legs after missing 21 straight games and 26 of 27 with a groin injury.
Coach Guy Boucher, though, could not contain his glee at the timing of Malone's return.
"We're not that big a team, and he's a big guy," Boucher said. "But being big is one thing; he's also smart. He's one of those rare guys who is the total package: toughness, big and smart. He's been missing a long time, and it's been hurting us a lot."
Malone, 31, has 11 goals and 34 points in 50 games while averaging 18:14 of ice time. The 6-foot-4, 219-pounder has nine power-play goals, mostly from being a stubborn presence in front of the net, and kills penalties.
But he hasn't played since Feb. 8 against the Sabres, when he slid into and wrapped himself around a goal post, and he has played only 6 minutes, 36 seconds since Jan. 21.
The time off wouldn't have been so bad, he said, had the team kept winning. But watching it go through a 4-6-4 skid was "a little rougher. You definitely wish you were out there."
What is reasonable to expect of Malone after such a long layoff?
"I'm not sure," he said. "It's been about three months since I've played in a good game, and you're always worried about what kind of shape you're in.
"I'm obviously going to try to bodycheck; that's not too hard of a skill to keep. But for the most part, keep shifts short and keep it as simple as you can, and keep your feet moving."
Whatever Malone contributes, "we can use him," goaltender Mike Smith said. "The guys are grinding it out, but we're definitely missing a big body out front. We don't have that in the lineup right now."
With the return of Malone and Steve Downie, Tampa Bay's grit level has spiked.
Getting two top-six forwards back in the lineup also takes some of the burden of playing time off their teammates.
That's happening just in time, too. The Penguins, even without injured stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, are pushing the Flyers for the Atlantic Division lead.
They outscored Tampa Bay 13-2 in their past two meetings.
"Their speed is what's difficult to handle," Boucher said. "They're not very big, but they're so fast, very evasive. These guys are on a mission."
But so is the Lightning, which with two straight victories seems to be working out of its recent malaise, and a win tonight secures a playoff spot that might match it up with the Penguins.
"Even if they are our first-round opponent, it's not going to be about us changing the way we play," Malone said. "We have to play our type of hockey that has brought us success all year."
It was about as much hype as Malone was willing to give.
MINOR MOVE: Forward Mattias Ritola was reassigned to AHL Norfolk.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at email@example.com.