Only two days removed from driving all of Canada into a state of celebration following his Olympic gold medal-clinching overtime goal against Team USA, Sidney Crosby
returns to NHL play tonight when his Pittsburgh Penguins
host the Buffalo Sabres
at Mellon Arena.
The game is one of 12 on the docket as NHL teams prepare for the stretch run of the regular season. It's a pretty significant matchup, too, as the fourth-seeded Penguins, who hold a 2-1 lead in the season series, lead the fifth-seeded Sabres by one point in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
While the Pens will honor their Olympic medalists before the game -- Crosby and Marc-Andre Fleury
with their gold medals, U.S. defenseman Brooks Orpik
with his silver -- there likely won't be an Olympic rematch between Crosby and Sabres goalie Ryan Miller
. Miller, who was named the Olympic tournament MVP after going 5-1 with a 1.35 goals-against average and .946 save percentage for Team USA, is in Pittsburgh, but backup Patrick Lalime
is slated to be in goal.
All eyes will be on Crosby, of course. Not only did he lead Canada to its biggest Olympic triumph since the '02 Games in Salt Lake City, but he has set a career-high with 42 goals this season. In his last 18 games, he has 18 goals and 29 points.
"It's been a tough couple of weeks, a lot of ups and downs," Crosby told the Penguins' Web site. "It felt like we had to win four Game 7s in a row to win. I don't know if you could ever match that with Canada and hockey. I think they said 85 percent of the population watched the game. I don't think I'll ever see that again or experience anything like that. It was fun. It was a lot of pressure but I don't think I'll ever experience that again."
In addition to Crosby and Miller, other Olympians back at work include the Penguins' Fleury, Orpik and two players from Team Russia, defenseman Sergei Gonchar
and Evgeni Malkin
. Malkin carries a 13-game point-scoring streak (8 goals, 22 points) into the game. He led Russia in scoring at the Olympics with 6 points (3 goals).
For Buffalo, Henrik Tallinder
of Sweden, Andrej Sekera
of Slovakia, Jochen Hecht
of Germany and Toni Lydman
of bronze-medalist Finland will be back. Also, Sabres coach Lindy Ruff
, an assistant for Team Canada, occupies his usual spot behind the Buffalo bench.
While the focus now shifts back to the business at hand, many Olympians on the Sabres are still talking about Miller, named the Olympic tournament's MVP.
"He became a little bit of a rock star out there," Tallinder said. "Everybody knew him, and every TV you watched he was on. He had an unbelievable Olympics. I hope he can bring that to our team, obviously. But he's always been that good. We just hope he can bring that little bit extra to the final stretch of the season."
Lalime will hope to match the effort he put forth Dec. 29 when he blanked the Penguins in relief of Miller in a 4-3 comeback victory at Buffalo. Lalime, who was drafted by the Penguins and started his NHL career in Pittsburgh, has stopped 50 of 51 shots in two games this season against his former team.
For the season, the 13-year veteran is 3-3-2 with a 3.21 GAA and .896 save percentage. Just one win short of 200 for his career (199-164-48), Lalime will be making his first start since Feb. 6 -- a 4-0 loss in Columbus.
Fans also can expect the newest member of the Penguins, defenseman Jordan Leopold
, to make his debut. Leopold was acquired from the Florida Panthers
for a 2010 second-round pick Monday.
"I'm excited," Leopold told the Penguins' Web site. "I knew it was a possibility that I would get moved out of Florida. The question was where and when. That question was answered (Monday). I'm really excited to join the Penguins. They're a dynamic team and have been for the last few years. They've had a lot of success and deservedly so."
Said Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma
: "Jordan Leopold
played against Alex Ovechkin
every shift last time Florida played Washington. When his coaches decided who plays against the other team's top line, it was Jordan. That may not be the case for us ... I think we're getting a guy that will help us defend against the other teams' good players. He's proven that and has been counted on to be that for his team this year."
Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale