FILE - In this Jan. 13, 2012 file photo, Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby skates during practice in Sunrise, Fla. Crosby will return to the ice Thursday night, March 15, 2012, when Pittsburgh faces the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz, File)
Led by MVP candidate Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh was already rolling as the NHL's top team over the last two months.
Throw in returning captain Sidney Crosby and the Penguins are loaded and ready to ascend to the top of the short list of Stanley Cup contenders.
Of course, that all depends on how recovered Crosby really is after a lengthy layoff because of concussion-like symptoms. If Crosby rounds into his old-MVP form by the time the post-season starts on April 11, then look out: The Penguins could be the team to beat.
Sid the Comeback Kid has a knack for stealing the spotlight wherever he plays. Outside of being on home ice, the former MVP's return couldn't be scripted any better: In New York against the first-place Rangers, who would have their once-sizeable lead in the East sliced to four points with a Pittsburgh victory.
Crosby's impact down the stretch starts to take shape Thursday at Madison Square Garden, but there's so many more teams than the Penguins and Rangers who will feel his return. The Flyers and Devils, for instance, are chasing Pittsburgh for the No. 4 seed and home-ice-advantage in Round 1. And then there's the teams that Pittsburgh will have to play down the stretch, whose jobs are about to become a little more difficult.
For the Penguins, though, the focus is in front of them. With more than three weeks left in the regular season, there's still enough time to catch the Rangers and earn that coveted top spot in the East.
It won't be easy, however, and it's far from a two-team race. The Devils have points in five of seven games this month. And the Flyers are 6-1 in March, with four shutouts.
Philadelphia has caught fire now that goalie Ilya Bryzgalov has rediscovered what made him one of the elite goalies in the NHL. And New Jersey is definitely capable of narrowing the gap with the Rangers, but needs goalie Martin Brodeur to pull some more "classic Brodeur" games.
Either way, the Rangers are clearly still the class of the conference. But the Penguins surged in the standings once Malkin put up numbers that resembled Crosby's before he was hurt. Pittsburgh, in fact, has won nine straight games entering Thursday's clash on Broadway and win No. 10 would be the biggest one yet.
And through all of this, you cannot forget about Boston, either. A bit inconsistent this season, the Bruins are still the defending Stanley Cup champions, and could snare the No. 2 post-season seed if they can hold off Ottawa for the Northeast Division title.
But, indeed, the entire East changes with Crosby back, even if the team captain will be eased into the rotation on the third line. Crosby will be paired with Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy. Coach Dan Bylsma will keep his top two lines the same: Chris Kunitz-Malkin-James Neal and Steve Sullivan-Jordan Staal-Pascal Dupuis. But if No. 87 picks up in his first game since Dec. 5 where he left off before he was injured, the lines may get shuffled in a hurry.
The Penguins could also welcome back defenceman Kris Letang from a concussion on Thursday, putting the team at full strength for just the second time this season.
"This is not something where we're a shoo-in to be a good team when they all come back," Bylsma said. "We have to do the same things and play the same way that allowed us to be a good team with or without 71 (Malkin) or 87 (Crosby) and we need to do that with 87. That's going to be a focus for our team, getting our healthy group to play that way in the last 14 games."
Watching his team move into the thick of the East race, though, has made Crosby all the more anxious to join the fun.
"When you're out, you're out," he said. "If anything, you're just really happy for the guys and just happy that everyone's having success. But it's never easy watching."
Crosby's addition is kind of like a contender adding an impact player at the trade deadline. The only difference, of course, is that he's already one of the franchise's all-time greats.
The Penguins follow New York with a tough back-to-back weekend, playing Saturday at New Jersey and Sunday at Philadelphia.
The Flyers, eight points behind the Rangers, also look like a new team now that Bryzgalov has seemed to shake his season-long funk. He finally appears worthy of the nine-year, $51 million contract he signed in June. His 3-0 win over the Devils on Tuesday gave him three straight shutouts, matching a team record set by John Vanbiesbrouck in 1999. Bryzgalov has four shutouts in five games and has stretched his scoreless streak to 196 minutes, 13 seconds.
If you believe a team can ride a hot goalie all the way to the championship, then the Flyers should be your pick. Bryzgalov after all, is peaking at the right time, and he's stopped bringing unwanted distractions to the locker room with his, let's say, unique, observations about his life.
"You come here to Philly and it's a lot more media, a lot more pressure and it takes time to adjust," Flyers defenceman Kimmo Timonen said. "It was an adjustment time for him, I'm sure. He looks more happy now, more comfortable, he's playing with a lot of confidence. That happens when your goalie plays well. You win games.
"I hate to say that, but that's 50, 60 per cent of your team."
Bryzgalov's emergence takes some of the pressure off the rest of the Flyers the way Crosby's return eases Malkin's burden.
The odd part is that, if the standings hold, the Flyers would play Pittsburgh in the opening round of the playoffs. If the Flyers dropped a spot to sixth, they'd earn a more favourable draw against Southeast Division-leading Florida. But Washington has gotten its act together and could overtake the Panthers for first in the final three-plus weeks of the season.
Time is running out for teams to make their move.
"There are a lot of games left for all of us here in the East, and we just have to make sure this doesn't carry on," Devils forward Patrik Elias said after the loss to the Flyers. "You can't worry about the pressure, you just have to go out and play well every night."
But they should be looking over their shoulder.
Crosby, after all, is coming for all of them.
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