Crosby making return to Penguins at right time

Posted: March 18, 2012

Almost three weeks after the NHL trade deadline, the Penguins got the man they wanted.

As several folks in the organization have said, no player would be a better acquisition for a run at the Stanley Cup than center and team captain Sidney Crosby.

And that was before the team rang off nine wins in a row, which the Penguins stretched to 11 consecutive with a 5-2 victory Saturday against the New Jersey Devils.

"Playing the way we are and then getting the best player in the world back [from injury] is not bad," right winger James Neal said Thursday after Crosby announced his intention to return against the Rangers.

After helping Pittsburgh to victories at the Rangers and Devils, Crosby will be in the lineup Sunday as the Penguins visit the Wells Fargo Center to play the Flyers in an Eastern Conference showdown.

Pittsburgh has won two of three against the Flyers this season, but Crosby has not played in any of those games. In fact, he hasn't played against the Flyers since December of 2010.

The Penguins got Crosby back with 14 games left in the regular season, allowing time to work out line and power-play combinations and other details before the playoffs.

In his first two games back, Crosby has logged five assists, three of them in Saturday's win at New Jersey.

Defenseman Kris Letang, out the last five games because of symptoms associated with a concussion, and defenseman Paul Martin, out the past two games because of illness, also are back.

"I don't know if I've seen the whole team healthy. Maybe for a couple of games," said Martin, who signed with the Penguins in July 2010.

Crosby and the team's other star centers, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, have missed significant time dating to the start of the 2010-11 season. Crosby has played in just eight games since Jan. 6, 2011 because of a concussion and neck injury. His short comeback lasted from Nov. 21 to Dec. 5, with two goals and 10 points.

He is symptom-free and said he has gotten all he can out of practices.

Malkin leads the NHL in points, and his line with Neal and Chris Kunitz has been strong, as has the second line with Staal centering for Steve Sullivan and Pascal Dupuis.

Crosby has played a lot with Kunitz and Dupuis, but Thursday he played mostly between Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy.

Bylsma said using Crosby on a third, more defensive, line will help keep his playing time in the range of 15 minutes. When Crosby made his earlier comeback, playing with Kunitz and Dupuis, he logged 15:54 and made the most of it with two goals and two assists in a 5-0 win against the New York Islanders.

Tyler Kennedy played with Crosby some on the top power-play unit last season, but a five-on-five assignment is new and presents what Kennedy calls "a great challenge and an exciting challenge," namely "keeping up with him. He's got great speed. And you've always got to be ready for the puck. He's such a great player. He passes when no one else expects he's going to pass, so you've got to be ready."

Crosby's modus operandi often is to create scoring chances off the rush, but it might be a little different on this line.

"We're going to try to move our feet and control the puck down low and generate some good chances, hopefully, off the cycle," he said.

As things unfold, Crosby also could play with Staal, another new wrinkle. Crosby has played with Malkin for short stints before but not much with Staal. Bylsma said either could play wing on such a line, with perhaps Dupuis or Sullivan.

Crosby had been skating for a while and got clearance for contact March 6.

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