NEW YORK -- This time was going to be different; it had to be. It would be impossible to hold even Sidney Crosby to the standards of last Nov. 21, when he scored two goals and four points against the Islanders in his first game back from a concussion suffered more than 10 months earlier. But if that November game was a reminder of Crosby's singular brilliance, then Thursday night at Madison Square Garden was a perfect demonstration of how Crosby, despite his status, still fits in a team.
With the 5-2 victory, the Penguins pulled within four points of the conference-leading Rangers, extending their win streak to 10 straight and seemingly hitting their stride with just 23 days left in the regular season. Meanwhile, the injury-riddled Rangers, who once seemed untouchable at the top of the East, might begin to feel the Pens and the Flyers, who defeated the Islanders 3-2 on Thursday night, nipping at their heels.
Behind a pair of goals from Matt Cooke, the Penguins lent credence to Glen Sather's statement to ESPN.com yesterday. The Rangers general manager dubbed Pittsburgh the best team in hockey, and against Sather's Blueshirts, they certainly looked like it, capitalizing on fast breaks and exposing defensive lapses. Before Thursday night's game, New York center Brandon Dubinsky stressed the importance of dictating the pace of the game against the streaking Penguins, but through the first 20 minutes, the only thing New Yorkers were dictating were drink orders in the lower bowl. It took nearly half a period before they got their first shot on goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, and though they finished the period tied 1-1, there was little question that the ice tilted in Pittsburgh's favor.
"It seems like they were able to strike in the first couple of minutes of every period," Rangers goalie Martin Biron said. "That kind of sets a tone for the period, and then we have to play catch-up like that. To do it once or twice [is one thing], but to try and come back like that every time, it makes it difficult on ourselves."
Fighting back against a team like Pittsburgh, which has not lost a game in regulation when leading after two periods, proves even more difficult with Crosby and Kris Letang back in the lineup. Thursday night also marked the return of the Penguins defenseman, who has missed the last five games, also with concussion-like symptoms. Finishing the game with an assist and +5, Letang played with no rein, leading the Penguins with more than 24 minutes of ice time.
The treatment of Crosby, on the other hand, seemed more measured. In his first comeback game, he said, he was perhaps guilty of going out looking for contact, if only to remind himself that he could take it. He was so amped up from a raucous home crowd that treated his November return with near-religious reverence that on his third shift, it came as no surprise that he slipped a backhanded shot into the net.
In some contrast, when he stepped onto the ice for his first shift about two minutes into the game, the Garden faithful rained down boos. He didn't avoid contact, certainly, but he did not go looking for it. It wasn't the firework display he put on some four months ago, but he also did not go through 60 minutes silently either, picking up an assist in the third period when he corralled a puck behind the Ranger net. Getting body position on Rangers defenseman Marc Staal, Crosby slipped a backhand a pass to Chris Kunitz, who fired in his 21st goal of the season from the left faceoff dot.
Finishing the game with 16 minutes, Crosby had a fairly productive evening, but Penguins coach Dan Bylsma has stressed the importance of monitoring Crosby and his minutes going forward. "We understand it's going to be a little different from last time," he said. "We're 14 games from the playoffs. Last time, we had more than 60 games left in the season, felt like the whole season. We know how much hockey we're playing this month."
The issue, however, is asking a healthy Sidney Crosby to sit is "a joke," as Bylsma puts it. But keeping Crosby healthy is of upmost importance. There are just over a dozen games remaining on the Penguins schedule, and the prospect of Pittsburgh's full roster healthy going into the playoffs, well, that is no joke at all.