By Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor - Archive - Email
Crosby's return strengthens already-formidable Pens
Sidney Crosby returned to action after sitting out over three months.
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - A day before his New York Rangers were to face the Pittsburgh Penguins in an important game at Madison Square Garden, general manager Glen Sather called the Pens "the best team in the league."

Those remarks, which were delivered to the media as Sather was set to leave the GM meetings in Boca Raton, Fla., came as a surprise to some people considering the Rangers, and not the Penguins, were sitting atop the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference standings.

Yet, after watching Sidney Crosby make his return for Pittsburgh in a 5-2 rout of the Rangers on Thursday, it's hard to argue with Sather's statement.

Crosby was back after sitting out over three months with a relapse of concussion symptoms as well as a diagnosis of soft tissue in his neck. In just his ninth game since his initial concussion problems began last January, Crosby posted two assists and a plus-three rating while logging exactly 16 minutes of ice time.

The conditions for the 24-year-old Crosby's return were ideal as Pittsburgh had won nine straight before posting its 10th consecutive victory at Madison Square Garden on Thursday.

Rather than messing with the chemistry the club has built during its recent hot streak, for the most part Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma chose to have Crosby center a line with wingers Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy. Sure, Pittsburgh has more talented forwards to pair with Crosby, but Bylsma wisely opted to ease his superstar back into the swing of things by playing him mostly on a lower-profile unit.

After all, the most important thing for the rolling Penguins right now is to make sure Crosby stays healthy and doesn't suffer another relapse. Obviously, in a sport as brutal as professional hockey there is no way to ensure that a player avoids sustaining a head injury, but Crosby feels he may have needlessly pushed himself into the physical aspects of the game when he made another memorable comeback in late November.

Back on Nov. 21, Crosby returned from a 10-month absence and posted two goals and two assists against the New York Islanders. He actually had less ice time (15:54) in that game than he did against the Rangers on Thursday, but Crosby felt he was looking for contact more in November.

Sidney Crosby Career At A Glance
 * No. 1 overall pick by Pittsburgh in NHL Entry Draft - 2005
 * Hart Memorial Trophy (MVP) - 2007
 * Art Ross Trophy (points leader) - 2007
 * Lester B. Pearson Award (player-voted MVP) - 2007
 * Stanley Cup - 2009
 * Olympic Gold Medal - 2010
 * Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy (goals leader) - 2010
 * Mark Messier Leadership Award - 2010

"Last (comeback) I probably was trying to test myself more than I needed to," Crosby said. "Tonight I wasn't really looking for it quite as much. I feel like I was able to do that leading up to the games. I didn't have to go looking for it. I wasn't trying to avoid it, but I wasn't as quick to initiate as last time to test myself."

Crosby lasted just eight games before the concussion symptoms returned in a game against Boston on Dec. 5. It was a productive run, as he posted two goals and 10 assists in that stretch, but much too short.

Presently, Crosby joins a Penguins team that is clicking at the right time. The Rangers, meanwhile, have lost four of their last six games and after holding a double-digit lead atop the Atlantic are now just four points ahead of Pittsburgh for both the division and conference leads.

Whether the Pens wind up winning the division or not, they figure to be a formidable opponent come playoff time no matter what seed they land. Last year, Pittsburgh entered the postseason as the fourth seed, but it played without either Crosby or fellow superstar forward Evgeni Malkin, who is healthy this year and leading the race for Hart Trophy.

The Penguins pushed Tampa Bay to seven games before losing in the first round last spring, but the situation will be different this time around if Bylsma has Crosby and Malkin to match up against the opposition.

The NHL is always unpredictable and it's even harder to figure out once the playoffs begin. It's not like the NBA, where being the best on paper means a great deal more in the postseason than it does in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Yet, when looking at the Eastern Conference, where the Rangers and Bruins have struggled recently, it appears the Penguins may have too much firepower for teams to handle come playoff time.

Three years ago, the Penguins used the dual attack of Malkin and Crosby to win the franchise's first Stanley Cup title since the days of Mario Lemieux, but this year's team is easily more well-rounded than the 2009 championship club.

Pittsburgh now boasts another prolific scorer in winger James Neal, a guy Crosby has barely played with since he was acquired last February in a trade with Dallas. Also, centerman Jordan Staal and top defenseman Kris Letang, who were just 20 and 22 years old, respectively, when the Pens beat Detroit in seven games for the Cup, are more complete players this time around.

Not to mention, Pittsburgh's vastly underrated goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is still only 27 years old and seems to be only entering his prime.

This Pittsburgh team is so good that it could probably win it all even without Crosby in the mix. Yet, adding the best player in the game to what already had become the "best team in the league" is not only a scary proposition for Sather's Rangers, but also for the rest of the NHL.

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