Drive of the Penguins

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The Pittsburgh Penguins' starting goaltender, Marc-Andre Fleury, returned to action last week after missing nearly three months with a high ankle sprain. After allowing the Boston Bruins two goals on 18 shots in relief of starter Ty Conklin in a game the Pens lost 5-1 on Thursday, Fleury was calm, composed and sharp in his first start three days later.

The Pens edged the Thrashers 3-2 in a shootout and had to be thrilled by Fleury's patience. While recording 31 saves, he was never too frenetic while tracking rebounds, or too antsy while battling the traffic in and around his crease.

Those are all good signs for the Penguins, who now sit atop the Eastern Conference standings. That's right: The conference-leading Pittsburgh Penguins. Of course, that could change by midnight. The Ottawa Senators and New Jersey Devils have 80 points apieds while the Montreal Canadiens and the Pens have 81. That's a quartet of hockey hopefuls awkwardly bunched. No matter. For the moment, the Penguins sit improbably atop the topsy-turvy East.

With Sidney Crosby sidelined by the same kind of dreaded high ankle sprain that Fleury suffered, the Penguins still managed to make their move, with the reasons well-chronicled:

Journeyman netminder Ty Conklin steps in, plays 25 of 31 games in Fleury's absence, and takes over the NHL lead in save percentage (.927).

Evgeni Malkin raises his stock from star to superstar by scoring 14 goals in the 21 tilts Crosby has missed thus far, usurping the NHL's point-scoring lead and turning linemate Ryan Malone into a scoring machine with 13 in those 21 games.

Oh yeah, the special teams have been all of that, particularly the power play, which has produced in 17 of the 21 games. Defenseman Sergei Gonchar has stepped up with 17 power play points in that span.

It all adds up to an 11-6-4 record while the game's most dynamic offensive player was convalescing. The point is that Crosby should return later this week, possibly for NBC's Game of the Week on Sunday at Washington. I caught a glimpse of him working out at Mellon Arena on Sunday morning and despite his ankle woes, let me report that Crosby's hands looked just fine. There seemed to be a spring to his stride and an eagerness to be back around the action that wasn't apparent even a week ago.

Then you have recently-acquired Marian Hossa, spraining the MCL in his right knee during his first game with the Pens after his trade from Atlanta. He could likewise return this weekend. Add in stalwart defenseman Ryan Whitney -- out the past few games with a groin strain -- and you suddenly see the Penguins' lineup that was envisioned by GM Ray Shero when he retooled his roster at last week's trade deadline by adding Hossa, checking forward Pascal Dupuis and space-eating defenseman Hal Gill, he of the 6' 7" wingspan. Veteran Gary Roberts might even be available to patrol the wing during the postseason and -- maybe more importantly -- manage the locker room.

So, right now in Pittsburgh there is satisfaction in the season thus far, and rightly so. But that mood pales in comparison to the anticipation of what might yet be. Everyone wants to see what this team looks like fully assembled. Shero smiled broadly when I put that premise to him and he offered a sly, "We'll see."

Penguins' fans who have been waiting patiently will see all the pieces in place during the first week of March. No doubt, the organization envisions this group together during the first week of June, perhaps with the Stanley Cup in hand.

We'll see, indeed.

The week sets up rather well for the healing Penguins as they head out on the road to play the Lightning in Tampa on Tuesday and the Panthers in Sunrise on Thursday before Sunday afternoon's game in Washington. Florida and the final stages of rehab just seem to naturally go together. The seemingly inevitable also-ran status of Tampa Bay and Florida suggests a relatively easy go.

Meanwhile, the Canadiens and Senators simultaneously tour the West Coast. The Habs go to San Jose (Mon.), Phoenix (Thurs.), Los Angeles (Sat.) and Anaheim (Sun.), while the Sens play on Monday in Anaheim, Wednesday in San Jose, Thursday in LA and Saturday in Phoenix.

For the Habs and Sens, keeping in touch with the top of the Eastern Conference will hinge on their ability to garner points against three tough foes during a stretch that will hardly be restful. Again, advantage Pittsburgh.