Crosby's second comeback game of the season would have drawn considerable attention no matter where or when it was played. But the circumstances -- virtually a must-win game for the Penguins if they are to catch the Rangers in the Eastern Conference -- make it bigger still.
"I think it's always nice just coming back, period," said Crosby, who has been out since Dec. 5 with concussion-like symptoms. "But to be in a big game like this, it's nice. Like I said before, the more you get into games the quicker you're going to adjust and adapt. I'm going to get into it pretty quickly here with the intensity and emotions of the games coming up. That's really the best thing, I think. I'm just happy to be in big games like this."
By Shawn P. Roarke - NHL.com Senior Managing Editor
While Sidney Crosby was delivering his long-awaited news to the media in Pittsburgh, Pens General Manager Ray Shero was ensconced in a board room at the Boca Raton Beach Club, discussing the minutiae of potential rule changes during Day 2 of the NHL's GM meetings. READ MORE ›
Of course, there are big games, and there are real big games, and Thursday's game (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN2) is one of those. The Penguins have won nine contests in a row, but if they don't match Boston's NHL season-high run of 10 straight, they might not catch the Rangers.
Back when New York was 10 points ahead of Pittsburgh, coach Dan Bylsma said the Penguins needed to sweep the final three games against the Rangers to have a chance. The Penguins won the first matchup, Feb. 21, and Bylsma hasn't changed his thinking -- Crosby or no Crosby.
"We have a big game. We have a game in hand. They're six points ahead of us. The tiebreaker is the Rangers', so we have to get ahead of them," Bylsma said. "Gaining four points in the remaining two games against them, I think, is critical."
Still, it's hard to ignore who is coming back, and when he's doing it, with 14 regular-season games remaining and the Eastern Conference still very much unsettled. The Penguins face a critical weekend, with the Devils and Flyers to follow Saturday and Sunday.
"I don't think it changes anything when you're coming back. I think that you still have to do your job," Crosby said Wednesday after being one of 11 players to go through an optional practice. "You still have responsibilities. You still have to be accountable. I just want to contribute and make sure that I'm doing my part."
Crosby, limited to eight games this season by concussion-like symptoms, couldn't have much a much more dramatic return than his first game back after a long concussion-related layoff. On Nov. 21 he had two goals and two assists against the Islanders, his first game since Jan. 5. He played in only seven more games this season before the symptoms returned, and he wasn't cleared for contact again until last week.
Certainly, the Penguins don't expect a repeat of his November performance. Then again, Bylsma said the Crosby he's seen in practice is the Crosby who widely was acknowledged to be the best player in the world before he was sidelined by a concussion in early January 2011, when he was the runaway leader in the NHL scoring race with 66 points in 41 games.
"I know that's what Sid is going in with, the mindset to do and be a part of. We'll see something special, I'm sure," Bylsma said.
Crosby might not be the only Penguins star returning in New York. Defenseman Kris Letang, out for five games with concussion-like symptoms, also is hinting he might be back, too, after going through a second successive practice.
"I don't think it changes anything when you're coming back. I think that you still have to do your job. You still have responsibilities. You still have to be accountable. I just want to contribute and make sure that I'm doing my part." -- Penguins' forward Sidney Crosby
"I felt pretty good today," Letang said. "If I feel great tomorrow (Thursday) morning, we have to make a decision with the coach and the staff."
Letang has nine goals and 22 assists in 40 games, but hasn't played since suffering a hard hit Feb. 29 against Dallas.
Bylsma admittedly will be as eager as anyone in the Garden to see how Crosby responds to his f first significant contact. But Bylsma felt the same way when Evgeni Malkin returned in October after missing the final two-plus months of last season following knee surgery, and when Letang came back from a concussion two months ago.
"I guess I wouldn't be totally honest (if I said) I don't feel that way," Bylsma said. "But I've felt that way about every player on our bench at some point in time. … Sid's been out a long time. He's only played eight games. So to get him back out there, we're hoping we get him for 14 games here in the regular season and going into the playoffs."
Despite missing 102 games to concussion-related issues the last two seasons -- he also was diagnosed with a neck injury during this layoff -- Crosby said he won't play Thursday any differently than any of his previous 420 NHL games.
"I'm going to be honest -- the other hits aren't on my mind," he said. "I can't control if someone is going to put a shoulder in my head and how I'm going to react to that. That's something that we'll see, but I don't have any less confidence in taking a hit."
But Crosby will be seen in different ways than in the past.
He'll start on the third line, with Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy, although Bylsma already has promised to play him alongside Malkin and Jordan Staal, too. This will be only the 11th game in the last two seasons the Penguins will play with all three of their elite centers.
Crosby also will man the point on the power play to take advantage of his superior passing skills and allow Malkin to keep roaming along the half-wall, where he feels most comfortable.
With so many possible combinations, Bylsma may be able to negate some matchups that teams try to create another team's top line.
"Anywhere that I can contribute," Crosby said. "No matter where you play, whether it's half-wall, goal line, you've got to find ways to be successful. … There are things that I think I can do at other positions, just like everyone out there has their strengths. I think wherever it is that they think I will be able to contribute, we all have to play to our strengths."
And with Crosby back, the Penguins finally are at full strength. And they can't wait to see what happens.
"We've gone 16-4-1 against teams that are (currently) in the playoffs," Bylsma said. "I think we know we're a good team. We've played good teams. We've played big games. We have three big games coming up."