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Penguins-Lightning Preview @NHLdotcom

As Sidney Crosby left the ice in pain the last time the Pittsburgh Penguins faced the Tampa Bay Lightning, his team feared the worst, and Crosby has missed all 21 of his team's games since then.

Apparently, Pittsburgh's captain wants to pick up right where he left off.

Sidney Crosby will return to the Penguins' lineup tonight after missing 21 games.

The star center unexpectedly took part in the pregame skate Tuesday and will play against the Lightning as the Penguins continue their battle for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

Pittsburgh (37-23-7) has been without Crosby - the NHL's reigning Hart Trophy winner - for more than six weeks with a high ankle sprain, suffered when he slid hard into the boards at Mellon Arena on Jan. 18.

Crosby has 20 goals and 43 assists in 46 games this season, and his injury seemed to deal a major blow to the Penguins' hopes of capturing the top seed in the conference. Instead, coach Michel Therrien's team has flourished, going 11-6-4 without Crosby to keep pace with New Jersey, Montreal and Ottawa in the race for the No. 1 seed.

That has been due in large part to Evgeni Malkin, the Calder Trophy winner as the league's top rookie last season. The 21-year-old center had 14 goals and 22 assists while Crosby was out, and he led the NHL with 88 points heading into Monday's action.

Now, Malkin has a healthy Crosby back in the lineup to help carry the offensive load.

"I feel pretty strong right now - that's what I based my decision on, how much strength I had and whether I could do the things out there I normally could do," said Crosby, who wasn't expected to play until Sunday in Washington at the earliest.

With Marc-Andre Fleury out since early December with a high ankle sprain, Ty Conklin's unexpected stellar play in goal has also been critical in keeping the Penguins afloat. The veteran is 17-6-5 with a 2.37 goals-against average this season.

Evgeni Malkin has much to celebrate with Crosby's return tonight. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Despite posting a 5.90 GAA in his previous two starts, however, a healthy Fleury got the call Sunday against Atlanta - his first start since Dec. 6 - and made 33 saves in Pittsburgh's 3-2 shootout win.

"I was a little nervous in overtime, but we still played good and it was fun to get the win," said Fleury, 0-4-3 with a 3.15 GAA in his career against Tampa Bay. "It was good to get that first game behind me."

Crosby wasn't the only star missing from Pittsburgh's lineup. Newly acquired forward Marian Hossa lasted less than two periods in his Pittsburgh debut Thursday before suffering a knee sprain, although he's expected to return this week as the Pens continue a three-game trip against Southeast Division foes.

Though the Lightning (26-32-7) have the worst record in the East, they may actually be happy to see the Penguins. Tampa Bay is 13-1-0 in its last 14 games against Pittsburgh.

The only loss came at Tampa by a 4-1 score Jan. 10, but the Lightning responded eight days later in Pittsburgh, winning 3-0 in the game Crosby was hurt.

Tampa Bay looked to be making a push toward the top of the Southeast in mid-February, moving within six points of division-leading Carolina on Feb. 14. The Hurricanes, though, are 5-2-1 since, while the Lightning have gone 1-5-1, including a 5-1 loss at Carolina on Saturday.

"Right now, it's tough," said right wing Martin St. Louis, who has 71 points but none in his last six games. "We just can't cheat and expect it's going to come."

With two of the team's leading scorers, Vaclav Prospal and Brad Richards, sent away at the trade deadline, more offensive pressure has shifted to St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier - the only players remaining on the roster with more than 10 goals.

Neither player had produced lately, as St. Louis has one goal in his last 11 games and Lecavalier one in his past 13.

St. Louis has 11 goals and 27 points in 27 games against Pittsburgh, while Lecavalier has scored 21 goals in 34 contests against the Penguins. Neither has a goal against Pittsburgh this season.

Mike Smith, acquired from Dallas in the Richards deal last Tuesday, is 1-2-0 with a 3.32 GAA in three starts with the Lightning. He lost 4-1 in Pittsburgh on Nov. 30, his only career start against the Penguins.

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