Judging by the way he played on Tuesday night, it would be hard to guess that Sidney Crosby
had missed the past 6½ weeks.
While he didn’t find the back of the net, the Pittsburgh Penguins
’ captain had plenty of scoring chances and set up Maxime Talbot
’s game-winning goal with 2:47 left in regulation in a 2-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning
at the St. Pete-Times Forum.
It indeed was a grand return for Crosby, who last appeared in a game back on Jan. 18, when he suffered a high ankle sprain in a 3-0 loss to the Lightning. With the win, the Penguins kept first place in the Atlantic Division and grabbed the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
''It's good to get it over with and get that feel and get that timing back, but it's still not there,'' Crosby said of his play. ''I had some great chances that I would have loved to put in. It didn't happen. Sometimes that's the way it goes. I'm a little rusty.''
He looked about as rusty as Marc-Andre Fleury
, who stopped all 35 shots he faced in his second game back from a similar injury. It was Fleury’s third shutout of the season and his first since Nov. 24.
''He was the story of the game,'' Pens coach Michel Therrien
said of Fleury, who robbed Vincent Lecavalier
on a breakaway with just over eight minutes left in the third period.
But Fleury — who has stopped 66 of 68 shots in two starts since his return — gave the credit to Crosby, who set up the game-winner when he raced down the right side and backhanded a centering pass that went off a skate before landing on Talbot’s stick.
''He's the best player in the League,'' Fleury said. ''Having him on our side is always a big help.''
Crosby wasn’t expected back until Sunday against the Atlanta Thrashers, but declared on Tuesday afternoon that he was ready to go. He nearly scored 20 seconds into his first shift, when he just missed an open-net chance.
“It’s huge having him back,” Talbot said of Crosby. “You saw him on the first shift, he had a great opportunity. He brings so many more scoring opportunities for our team. It’s great for everybody to have him back.”
That includes Talbot, who has benefited from the Marian Hossa deal that sent Erik Christiansen and Colby Armstrong to Atlanta. Talbot made no bones about the fact about how Crosby – who was the League’s leading scorer at the time of his injury with 63 points in 46 games — makes everyone around him better.
“I’m fortunate to play with Sid right now,” Talbot said. “You give him the puck, and he opens up so much space. You drive the net, you’ll have 30 ones like that. It definitely feels great when it’s a game-winner.”
''I just got a drop pass and drove the net. I tried to put it through and he (Talbot) did a great job of battling there,'' Crosby said.
Recently-acquired Mike Smith’s only blemish on the night was Talbot’s late tally. Evgeni Malkin added an empty-net goal with five seconds remaining. Smith finished with 22 saves and denied Petr Sykora on a penalty shot in the second period.
''I kind of slipped out (of the net). I should have been there,'' Smith said. ''It's frustrating to have zero on the board the whole game and then lose it like that.''
Smith also came up big late in the first period, when he turned aside a breakaway chance by Crosby. The Pens’ captain was able to get around Lightning defensemen Paul Ranger and Alexander Picard, but Smith made a pad save to keep the game scoreless.
''He's pretty special,'' Tampa Bay defenseman Shane O'Brien said of Crosby. ''We kept him off the boards for 58 minutes or whatever, but he's a great player.''
With the loss, the Lightning — who reside in the Eastern Conference cellar — fell to 1-6-1 in their last eight games.
“They’re really good offensively,” Talbot said of the Lightning. “They’re at the bottom of the standings, but I think they’re a better team than that. It was a tight game. Fleury did outstanding in net. I’m really happy for him. Two big points for us.”
Material from wire services and broadcast media was used in this report.