A week after Dan Bylsma said Sidney Crosby could be the “biggest acquisition of the trade deadline” the Kid is all right.
All right enough to return to the lineup on Thursday night in Manhattan where the Pittsburgh Penguins captain will face the New York Rangers.
And all right to make the red-hot Pens the potential Stanley Cup favourites as the regular-season schedule moves into the home stretch.
With it, of course, comes a nervous excitement of seeing the game’s best player back in action. Can he last longer than the eight-game taste earlier this season? Or is Crosby one hit away from ending his career?
This time the hockey world will hold its collective breath as Crosby returns, not in find-your-legs November, but in the closing strides of the NHL playoff race where the intensity and speed are cranked that much higher.
The game is always a better place with him in it. But given Sid the Kid has played just eight games in almost 15 months — his initial comeback from a serious concussion ending abruptly on Dec. 5 after getting hit twice — the Crosby watch will continue.
“I feel a little bit better knowing what to expect,” Crosby told reporters in Pittsburgh on Tuesday, referring to the emotion of his brief return in November. “It’s just easier going through it this time. That first game (against the Islanders) was pretty overwhelming. It was a lot of fun, but that being said I’ll take it more in stride this time.”
Based on practice Tuesday in Pittsburgh, it looks as though Bylsma will do his best to ease Crosby back into the lineup. With 14 games remaining, there’s plenty of time to get him up to superstar speed by the opening round of the playoffs.
Initially, he’s expected to skate on a third line with Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke. Crosby also saw some spot duty on the point during power-play drills where he should add another dimension to the on-fire line of Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz and James Neal.
Eventually, Bylsma will have a decision to make in terms of getting his No. 1 star onto the top line, but for now the emphasis will be on letting Crosby find his stride.
“I’ve always told him he could be a Selke winner,” Bylsma joked. “He’s going to have his chance here with Cooke and Kennedy.”
Safe to say Crosby won’t be content with third-line duty for long. The 24-year-old put up 12 points in eight games before being hurt. A week ago, when the Penguins were preparing to play the Leafs, Crosby hinted at a return this past Sunday but that never made sense. For one, it was against the same Bruins team that KOed him back in December. And for another, he had just two full contact practices since being cleared on Tuesday.
He’ll jump right into the fire this week, however. After Thursday’s date on Broadway, the Penguins play at New Jersey on Saturday and at Philadelphia on Sunday before Crosby gets a chance to play at home next Tuesday against the Winnipeg Jets.
“We’ll make sure I get better every game, but I’ll pace myself a bit with the schedule,” Crosby said. “It’s going to be draining enough to get back into it.”
Though the Penguins didn’t say much, they were quietly confident that Crosby would be back. It was just a matter of when, as general manager Ray Shero confirmed during a chat with Crosby just prior to the trade deadline. The purpose of the conversation was Shero’s hint at putting Crosby on injured reserve to clear cap space.
“(I told him) ‘It’ll take you out of the lineup this year and you can only come back in the playoffs,’” Shero told Sun Media’s Chris Stevenson Tuesday in Boca Raton, Fla. “I didn’t have that deal, I just wanted to hear what he said. He was like, ‘I’m not doing all this, not working this hard not to come back, you know?’
“He said he’s a hockey player and I have great respect for that. As the captain of our team, it’s really important to have him back in our lineup. I’m looking forward to that, as well.”
He’s not alone.