- Associated Press - Thursday, February 24, 2011

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Forward Alex Kovalev is returning to the Penguins on a day the team couldn’t escape losing yet another regular to an ever-growing injured list.

The Penguins acquired Kovalev in exchange for a conditional draft pick with the Ottawa Senators on Thursday. The trade is Pittsburgh’s second in four days as the team attempts to shore up a banged-up roster that is currently minus 12 regulars.

The trade for Kovalev was announced shortly after coach Dan Bylsma revealed that defenseman Brooks Orpik will miss between four and six weeks with a broken finger on his right hand. Orpik was hurt when he was struck by Patrick Marleau’s shot late in the first period of a 3-2 overtime loss to San Jose a day earlier.

On the bright side, the Penguins did add a veteran forward in Kovalev, who’s capable of stepping in immediately to provide a sputtering offense some punch. Keep in mind, this team is already missing captain Sidney Crosby, who’s out indefinitely with a concussion, and Evgeni Malkin, who sustained a season-ending knee injury earlier this month.

“Without Crosby and Malkin and guys like this in your lineup, I welcome the addition of the skill of Alexei Kovalev,” general manager Ray Shero said. “You can see what we’re missing on the ice with some of these guys, so we’re hoping that in the short term here that he’ll be energized to play.”

The trade was completed on the day of Kovalev’s 38th birthday. He’s expected join the Penguins in time for their game at Carolina on Friday.

Kovalev is an 18-year NHL veteran, who played for the Penguins from 1998 through the 2002-03, a stretch during which he enjoyed some of his best seasons before being traded to the New York Rangers. He was a two-time All-Star selection during his time in Pittsburgh, and had a career-best 95 points (44 goals, 51 assists) in 2000-01. Overall, he has 426 goals and 591 assists for 1,017 points in 1,282 career games.

Kovalev had 14 goals and 13 assists in 54 games in his second season with the Senators. He became expendable in Ottawa on a team that’s all but mathematically out of playoff contention, sitting last in the Eastern Conference.

Before making the trade, Shero consulted with Penguins owner Mario Lemieux, who was a teammate of Kovalev’s in Pittsburgh. Lemieux, Shero said, “went to bat” for Kovalev, while also approving the deal in which the Penguins pick up what’s left of the $5 million contract the player is scheduled to make this season.

In exchange, the Penguins gave up a seventh-round pick in this year’s draft. It will turn into a sixth-round pick if Pittsburgh reaches the second round of the playoffs and Kovalev appears in at least 50 percent of the first-round games.

The trade for Kovalev came after the Penguins acquired third-year left wing James Neal and defenseman Matt Niskanen in a trade that sent offensive defenseman Alex Goligoski to the Dallas Stars on Monday.

Orpik’s injury is the latest key loss for a team that can’t afford too many more. Orpik is one of the team’s top four blue-liners and plays on the top penalty-killing unit.

He has a goal and 11 assists in 56 games this season.

Shero expects the Penguins to start welcoming back some of their injured players. He said forward Dustin Jeffrey (lower body) could return as soon as Friday, while forward Mark Letestu (lower body) isn’t far behind. Defenseman Paul Martin (upper body) is expected back after this weekend, while forward Chris Kunitz (lower body) will miss another week or two.

Shero didn’t provide an update on Crosby’s status.

The rash of injuries have sent the Penguins in a tailspin, though they remain in playoff contention, sitting in fourth in the East.

They’re 2-5-2 in their past nine games and are struggling particularly on offense, which has produced five goals during the team’s 0-1-2 skid.

After averaging just under 3.3 goals through their first 41 games with Crosby, the Penguins’ production is down to a little over 2.1 over the past 21 games. It’s a stretch in which they’ve scored four or more goals in regulation twice and been shut out three times.

Coach Bylsma left before the trade was announced, and had hinted he was open to adding offense.

“I think it may be evident that one or two more goals, a little more scoring touch, would help us out at this point,” Bylsma said. “This is an area I think we’d be looking to add, scoring in our upfront position, our top nine.”

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