Showtime for Sid the Kid

Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby, recently cleared for physical contact, handles the puck during...

Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby, recently cleared for physical contact, handles the puck during practice in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, March 7, 2012. (REUTERS/David DeNoma)

Rob Longley, Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:29 PM ET

The higher the stakes, the bigger the challenge, the more Sidney Crosby is able to tune out external distractions.

But what about now? Can the Penguins captain forget the shots to the head that have threatened his career and limited his artistry to eight games in almost 15 months?

“I’m going to be honest, the other hits aren’t on my mind,” Crosby told reporters in Pittsburgh Wednesday as he prepared for his latest return, Thursday in Manhattan in a big test against the New York Rangers.

“I can’t control if someone is going to put a shoulder in my head and how I’m going to react to that. That’s something that we’ll see, but I don’t have any less confidence in taking a hit.”

Still, with the intensity jumped up and an important game for the Penguins in their late bid to claim the top seed in the Eastern Conference, more than a few folks will be holding their breath every time Crosby gets within striking range of a flying elbow.

With three games in four nights, Crosby’s return is hockey’s answer to March Madness. Here’s five points to ponder as the hockey world sees if the Kid is all right.

1. How much time?

The early indications are that coach Dan Bylsma will ease Crosby into the lineup more this time around. Putting him on what looks like a third line with Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke likely means Crosby will play in the 13-15 minute range. But if the Rangers spend much time on the box, power-play duty on the point could bump that up in a hurry.

The beauty for the Penguins is that there is little urgency right now. The Penguins are fighting for playoff position, but not to get in, and are thriving without their star captain. And with 14 regular-season games remaining, the idea is to have Crosby in peak form by around April 10, not March 15.

In his first comeback in November, Crosby played 15:54 his first night but by his fourth game had topped 20 minutes. Expect that workload to be tempered this time around. Over-working Crosby over the next four nights won’t be prudent.

2. Where does he fit?

Credit to Bylsma for keeping a straight face a week ago when asked prior to the Leafs-Penguins game in Pittsburgh where Crosby would fit in a lineup that already has a dynamic first line and is riding the NHL’s longest win streak.

Obvious answer: There is always a place for Sidney Crosby.

In all likelihood, Bylsma will do plenty of tinkering between now and playoff time and that will work just fine with Crosby. He has shown throughout his career that he can not only play with just about anyone else, but he usually brings up his linemates games.

Other than on the power play, he won’t see much time with Evgeni Malkin, obviously, but don’t be surprised if a Kunitz-Crosby-Pascal Dupuis trio gets some traction.

The other plan, initially anyway, is to have Crosby on the point for the power-play. If that works, and there is no reason to think it won’t, imagine No. 87 feeding Malkin.

3. What style?

Having gone through the frustration of a second extended layoff to recover from a head injury (this time it was referred to more as concussion-like symptoms) and with one more big head hit being potentially career-ending, will Crosby change his style?

Tough to envision it, given that one of his at-times unheralded talents is his willingness and effectiveness at sticking his nose in and getting it dirty.

“I’m going to get into it pretty quickly here with the intensity and emotions of the games coming up,” Crosby said. “I’m just happy to be in big games like this. As far as nervous about it, I think I’ve gotten hit here pretty hard in practice and I responded pretty well.”

4. Power of the Pens

As we said, there is always a place for Crosby, but how much better can he make them?

Well, the Pens have already won a league-best nine in a row, have an impressive plus-46 goal differential and with 89 points trail the Eastern Conference leading Rangers by six points and Pittsburgh has a game in hand.

“We win on Thursday night, it puts a whole new spin on where we’re at in the standings vs. New York,” Bylsma said. “It’ll be playoff-type hockey. Sidney is back in the mix, so I think it adds a pretty good story. You’ll see some good hockey, some pretty intense games here.”

5. Odds Are

Crosby’s return is high profile enough to attract some wagering interest with on-line sports book, Bodog, putting out some lines.

The over-under on his minutes for Thursday’s game is 14 1/2, which sounds like a coin flip. He is 1/2 to score a point in his return, which are extremely low odds, but factor in the anxiousness for his return and his productivety in his eight-game stint earlier in the season.

The over-under for games played this season is 21 1/2. The Pens have 14 remaining and Crosby has already played in eight. And finally, with Crosby back, the Penguins are at 6-1 to win the Stanley Cup.

rob.longley@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/longleysunsport

 

 


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