Sidney Crosby made it official Tuesday -- he's returning to the Pittsburgh Penguins' lineup Thursday against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. It will be the superstar center's first game since Dec. 5, when he developed concussion-like symptoms following a physical game against the Bruins.
"I feel good, and the plan is to play Thursday," Crosby said.
It's great news for the Penguins, who are rolling along on a nine-game winning streak even without their world-class star. With Crosby playing again, the crowded Eastern Conference playoff race promises to become even more competitive as the Rangers -- four points up going before Tuesday night -- try to hold off the Penguins, plus the Flyers and Devils, who are four points back of Pittsburgh.
Even the Penguins don't entirely know what to expect when Crosby plays for the first time in 41 games. Still, coach Dan Bylsma dropped a hint following an upbeat practice in which Crosby skated on the No. 3 line and manned the point on the power play, a previously unfamiliar position for him.
"I think it's unrealistic that he's going to step into Madison Square Garden and be the only show on the ice," Bylsma said. "But I know how the guy plays. I know how fast he is going to go. I know what's going to happen when he has the puck with speed. You know how he's going to be able to play down low with the puck, and you expect to see that player step on the ice. That's a really good hockey player. That's the best hockey player in the world."
Crosby, who has missed 61 games this season and 102 games over the last two seasons, feels better than he did before making his spectacular return with two goals and four points against the Islanders on Nov. 21 -- his first game in more than 10 months. He played in seven more games before the concussion symptoms, including headaches, returned again.
"I probably feel a little bit better just knowing what to expect," Crosby said. "I think it's easier going through it this time. I know what to expect. That first game was pretty overwhelming. It was a lot of fun, but that being said I'll take it more in stride this time and make sure I'm getting better with every game."
Crosby admittedly was energized and motivated before the Islanders game. He said later, "I could have played all night."
This time, he's coming back to a team that is locked into a tight playoff race, with every shift, every game and every point possibly proving crucial. Crosby said conditioning isn't an issue -- he pushed himself hard while skating for weeks before returning to practice last week.
"He's confident," Penguins general manager Ray Shero said while attending the general managers' meetings in Boca Raton, Fla. "He feels better than the last time."
Crosby announced he was coming back after working with Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy on the No. 3 line. Bylsma, at least for this practice, kept his top two lines of Chris Kunitz-Evgeni Malkin-James Neal and Steve Sullivan-Jordan Staal-Pascal Dupuis together.
Crosby on the third line? If nothing else, that proves how well the Penguins are playing. Evgeni Malkin leads the scoring race with 84 points, and the No. 2 line -- Steve Sullivan-Jordan Staal-Pascal Dupuis -- last week produced every regulation goal during a two-game span.
"I'm pretty sure I'll end up with those two (Cooke and Kennedy)," Crosby said. "I wouldn't see coach putting me with a different pairing after missing this much time. I'm sure he's trying to get guys used to playing with one another. I'm sure like any game, different line combinations are common."
Bylsma joked that, "I've always told him he could be a Selke winner. He's going to have his chance here with Cooke and Kennedy."
Crosby is also expected to see time with Staal and Malkin; the Penguins' three centers have been together for only 10 games in the last two seasons. While Crosby has played frequently with Malkin, especially in situations where the Penguins needed a late goal, he has not played with Staal.
For now, Crosby will play about 14-15 minutes a game -- even if Bylsma knows how difficult it will be to limit him to those minutes.
"It's hard keeping a guy like that on the bench," Bylsma said. "But that's the number we're looking at. … You don't pace Sidney Crosby, but keeping his minutes a little closer to 15 is what we are looking at. That's one of the reasons for putting him with No. 24 (Cooke) and No. 48 (Kennedy."
Crosby agreed, saying, "It's going to be draining enough to get back into it."
Crosby and star defenseman Kris Letang, back in practice after missing five games with concussion-like symptoms, manned the points during power plays drills. Bylsma also experimented with an all-forwards unit of Steve Sullivan, James Neal, Chris Kunitz, Malkin and Crosby.
Letang's status for Thursday is uncertain.
"I think he's going to do a great job on top," said Letang, who has excelled on a unit that is seventh in the League with a 19.7 percent conversion rate, up from 25th last season. "It's going to be a whole new look for our power play."
Crosby's exceptional vision and puck-moving ability is "the best we have on the team," Bylsma said.
"It's a different spot for me. I played there in juniors so it's been a few years since I've been back there," Crosby said. "I like it. I'm able to see a lot of the ice and have Geno (Malkin) with the big shot on the sidewall. My job is to distribute the puck amongst everyone. When he's shooting the puck like that, just give it to him in that area."
Crosby, long known as the Kid, is becoming the Penguins' Comeback Kid. But it's a distinction he doesn't really want, saying, "I don't want to have to go through this again."
Crosby broke into the League at age 18 with a 102-point season in 2005-06 and has been one of the League's elite players ever since. He had won the MVP award, a scoring title, the Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal by age 22, and was putting up the best numbers of his career with 32 goals and 66 points in 41 games until he developed the concussion during the first week of January 2011.
It was the remaining symptoms from that concussion -- including headaches and motion issues -- that kept him out of the first 20 games this season.
While he was out, Crosby met with specialists other than those who have been treating him in Pittsburgh, and a soft tissue injury in his neck was discovered. Crosby believes this diagnosis and the subsequent treatment helped get him back on the ice before the end of the season.
He was symptom free when he was cleared to resume contact work in practice on March 6, and has stayed that way since -- one reason why he is so eager to play again.
Adding the former Art Ross Trophy and Hart Trophy winner to what already is the NHL's hottest team instantly makes the Penguins one of the Stanley Cup favorites. They have not advanced past the Eastern Conference Semifinals since winning the Cup in 2009.
Unless he misses any more games, Crosby will get in 14 contests before the Stanley Cup Playoffs, including six games against the Rangers, Flyers and Bruins. Pittsburgh has three games left against rival Philadelphia.
"We'll make sure I get better every game, but I'll pace myself a bit with the schedule," Crosby said.