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Pens Adjust Lineup for Crosby's Return

by Michelle Crechiolo / Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins are the NHL’s hottest team, having won a season-high nine straight games and catapulting to within four points of the Eastern Conference-leading New York Rangers as a result – something that critics believed unfathomable a few weeks ago.

And now, head coach Dan Bylsma is going to have to figure out how to insert the best player in the world back into his lineup.

What a great problem to have.

Penguins captain Sidney Crosby announced Tuesday that he would return to the lineup Thursday in New York against the Rangers after missing the last 40 games with concussion-like symptoms.

And though Crosby confirmed his return just a few hours ago, having him back in the lineup is something that Bylsma and the rest of the coaching staff have been thinking about for a long time.

So while there are just 14 games left in the regular season, Bylsma isn’t worried about tinkering with his lines so close to the playoffs.

“I’ve already been doing that knowing at some point in time, Sid was going to be coming back here,” Bylsma said. “Whether it’s next game or the games down the road, I’ve already had that thought in mind. People have asked about the power play, but I started thinking about the power play two months ago. That’s not something Sid talked about two days ago and we started saying, OK, what are we going to do. We’ve been thinking about this for a while.”

In terms of 5-on-5 play, Crosby will start out centering a line with Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy. The lines of Chris Kunitz-Evgeni Malkin-James Neal and Steve Sullivan-Jordan Staal-Pascal Dupuis line will remain intact for now.

One major reason for that decision is to best manage Crosby’s playing time.

Crosby returned to the lineup after a long layoff Nov. 21, 2011 after missing 61 consecutive games with a concussion sustained in January 2011. He would play eight games before suffering from the recent setback following a Dec. 5 game against the Boston Bruins, playing with usual linemates Kunitz and Dupuis the entire time.

But the Penguins’ busy road trip (three games in four nights) and trying to pace the 24-year-old center as he regains his form following such a long layoff means Bylsma will try to keep Crosby around 14-15 minutes of ice time – which would be hard to do playing with those Kunitz and Dupuis.

“If there was another combination or if it was (Kunitz) and (Dupuis), it would be a lot tougher to keep him at 15 minutes,” Bylsma said. “Last time, when he hopped back in there, he was right back with (Kunitz) and (Dupuis) and he was right at 19, 20, 21 minutes right in his first couple of games. We want to get him back in the mix, but keeping his minutes a little bit closer to 15 is what we’re looking at. That’s one of the reasons for putting him with (Cooke) and (Kennedy).”
There’s also the playoff-like atmosphere of games at this point in the season to consider.

“Obviously this time of year is a little different then coming in when I did last time, so the pace is a little higher,” Crosby said. “The intensity and the importance of the games are a little bit higher. I’m sure that there will be kind of a (feeling-out) process and we’ll see how things go.”

But as we all know, anything can happen during the flow of a game -- and Bylsma said he expects to use Crosby on different lines throughout the contest.

But one thing is for sure: Crosby will be a fixture on the power play, which currently ranks seventh in the NHL.

And this time, he’ll be assuming a different role – playing the point.

The top power-play unit in Tuesday’s practice had Crosby and Kris Letang at the points, Malkin on the halfwall and Kunitz and Neal down low.

It’s been a few years since Crosby has played there, the last time being in juniors. But Crosby, who usually is placed down low or around the net, is excited about the prospect of quarterbacking the man-advantage.

“I think I’m able to see a lot of the ice there and I’ve got ‘Geno’ (Evgeni Malkin), who has that big shot on the sidewall,” Crosby explained. “My job would be to try and distribute the puck amongst everyone, but when he’s shooting the puck like that, just giving it to him in that area and letting him work there.”

That vision is exactly what Bylsma likes the most about playing Crosby there – and he’s not worried at all about his captain having any rust in that position.

“I think Sid’s vision from the point on shooting or a pass, passing to the net or to the side of the net will be the best that we have on our team,” Bylsma said. “His vision and his ability to shoot the puck, shoot it towards James Neal, his ability to get across the line and go back to Malkin, is unparalleled on our team.

“There’s going to be a little bit of an adjustment. We’ve been working with Sid the last 7-8 days on that, whether it’s when he’s been out there by himself or whether he’s been out there with the team and now in practice the last couple times for the power play.”

The Penguins also practiced 5-on-3 power play situations, where they used a five-forward look: Crosby and Sullivan on the point, Malkin on the halfwall and Kunitz and Neal down low.

The possibilities are endless in terms of how to arrange the lineup with Crosby back – Bylsma even mentioned future scenarios of playing Crosby and Jordan Staal on the same line for the first time with either Dupuis or Sullivan on the other wing.

But while it’s hard not to dream about every possible scenario, the reality is that the Penguins have a huge game on their schedule Thursday – and no matter where Crosby plays, he’s going to do his best to help his team win.

“We’re going to go try to win a hockey game, a big game for us,” Bylsma said. “We’re going to try to pull two points closer to the Rangers. 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. But we’ll also see a team and a guy going into a very big game against the Rangers, who we’re still trying to catch and think we can if we win the two games against them.”

And Crosby is eager to help his teammates and get back into the lineup.

“It’s never easy watching no matter if you’re losing some games or winning,” Crosby said. “You want to be involved in it, too. I think that it’s never easy, but if anything you are happy for your teammates and happy the team is having success and preparing yourself to come back and contribute.”
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