If the Pittsburgh Penguins have any intention of getting back to the Stanley Cup finals, they'll need improved play from everyone in the season's second half, including captain Sidney Crosby.
First, they'll need him on the ice.
The Penguins will hope to have the ailing Crosby available on Wednesday night when they host the New York Rangers, who will be looking for their sixth win in seven games.
Pittsburgh (23-21-4) appeared to have carried the momentum of its trip to the Cup finals over to the first two months of 2008-09. It started the season 15-6-4, and trailed the Rangers by four points on Dec. 4.
But the defending Eastern Conference champions then went 8-15-0 leading into the All-Star break, a stretch capped by a 2-1 loss to Carolina on Jan. 20 in which they couldn't cash in a four-minute power-play late in the contest.
"It's frustrating," said the Penguins' Jordan Staal. "At times, our power play has been great, and at times it has been not-so-great. And there it's a big moment for our power play to clinch a point for us. We should be able to go out and do it."
Pittsburgh is 6-for-66 (9.1 percent) with the man advantage since Dec. 23.
Crosby, whose 60 points are tied for second in the NHL behind teammate Evgeni Malkin's 70, has been slowed by a knee injury suffered in a 6-3 loss to Washington on Jan. 14. Yet Crosby missed just one game before playing in Pittsburgh's final two contests of the first half, then opted for rest over starting in Sunday's All-Star game in Montreal.
He practiced for the second straight day on Tuesday, and expects to play on Wednesday.
"Everything is pretty much the same," Crosby told the team's official Web site. "Hopefully, it stays that way and I'll be good to go. ... That's all I can really hope for. I just don't want to go backwards."
After an 18-8-2 start, the Rangers went 6-7-2 from Dec. 4-Jan. 9. But New York (28-16-4) picked it up before the break, winning four of its final five games with its only loss coming 3-0 in Pittsburgh.
The Rangers resumed play on Tuesday at home against Carolina with backup goaltender Stephen Valiquette getting the call over All-Star Henrik Lundqvist.
Valiquette made 33 saves, and Scott Gomez had a goal and assist as New York won 3-2.
"We didn't just sit around in a lawn chair or a hammock and drink beer," Valiquette said. "That would've been counterproductive. We're pros, and times have changed. The postgame hydration isn't a Bud Light."
Lundqvist is expected to start on Wednesday, and he's typically tormented the Penguins - 15-7-3 with a 2.04 goals-against average in his career against them, and 3-1-0 with a 1.68 GAA this season.
The only Ranger with multiple goals versus the Penguins this season is Nikolai Zherdev, who scored a goal in each of New York's first two wins in the series. Zherdev, though, hasn't scored in two games against Pittsburgh this month, part of a 13-game drought dating to Dec. 20.
Crosby and Malkin have combined for just one goal against New York this season.
The Penguins are 8-0-2 in their last 10 regular-season home games versus the Rangers.