The Pittsburgh Penguins waited nearly a calendar year for the brightest talent in the world to return to their lineup, from January 5th to November 21st, 2011. In that stretch, the Penguins had a record of 34-19-8. Not bad at all.
After getting Sidney Crosby back from his concussion on for a game against the Islanders just before Thanksgiving, the Penguins went 5-2-1 over the next eight games, in which Crosby recorded 12 points and made it look like he never left.
Except that in that eighth game against the Bruins, Pittsburgh's worst nightmare came true. Crosby's concussion symptoms were back.
Later that week, a spinal specialist in Los Angeles discovered that Crosby actually suffered an injury to his vertebrae, leaving the Pens without a timetable for his return.
The Penguins played the next 40 games in the absence of their captain, and in that stretch they have done more than keep their heads above water. In fact, they've gone 26-13-1 since then, and are winners of nine straight which has brought themselves within four points of the first-place Rangers in the Eastern Conference.
On Thursday, the surging Penguins will take the ice at Madison Square Garden in one of two late-season matchups with the Rangers, a pair of gmaes that will go a long way to deciding who truly is the East's best.
And no. 87 will be there to make his case.
Thursday's meeting between the Rangers and Pens couldn't possibly come at a better time for Pittsburgh, whose nine-game winning streak is their best of the season. The Rangers are stumbling for the first time this year, who preceded Sunday's overtime win over the Islanders with three straight regulation losses for the first time this season. Despite having only one regulation win in their last six, the Rangers have still won their last five games at home heading into tonight's battle against the Hurricanes.
Crosby, who recorded two assists against the Rangers during his first comeback attempt, speculated that he would likely play with Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy on Thursday, as reported by Alan Robinson of NHL.com, whom he skated with in practice today. The third line role would be sensible, given Bylsma's likely efforts to limit Crosby's ice time in the early going.
In addition, Bylsma has no need to touch his top unit of Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, and Chris Kunitz. Malkin is having a Hart Trophy-worthy season with 60 points in 40 games since the last time Crosby suited up.
Neal's 65 points in 68 games are already his career best by far, and Kunitz has fit in beautifully on that line, despite his usual role as Crosby's wing-man.
The Penguins fortunes may even prove to be more fruitful before the puck drops Thursday. Kris Letang, who has missed five games with concussion-like symptoms, and defenseman Paul Martin, who has missed two games due to illness, are both targeting a Thursday return as well. Martin appears a sure thing for Thursday, while Letang's availability will likely be decided after Wednesday's skate.
If Letang and Martin are both able to go, it will be the first time the Penguins will have a full-strength roster to face the Rangers. The Rangers, on the other hand, may not have that opportunity.
The Ranger will likely miss Ryan Callahan for the second straight game as he recovers from a bruised foot he suffered blocking an Ilya Kovalchuk shot on March 6th. Michael Del Zotto looks as though he will miss his third straight as he battles a bruised hip. Henrik Lundqvist, healthy for most of the season to this point, will miss tonight's game with what appears to be a case of the flu, prompting the call up of Chad Johnson from the Connecticut Whale of the American Hockey League.
While Del Zotto and Callahan could use the rest to return for Thursday, rather than risk reaggravating injuries against the Hurricanes, the Rangers will certainly be in trouble if they have to handle of full strength Penguin squad without the league's best goaltender and two of their top five scorers.
The lone bright spot for the Rangers through this lull and their recently battered lineup has been the spike in production from Brad Richards. Richards has three goals and five points in his last three games, including two powerplay goals against the Islanders on Sunday night, after not scoring since February 19th, a span of ten games. For the Rangers to have success through a stretch in which they play ten games in 18 days, Richards will need to be one of their best.
The Rangers won the first two meetings between the teams, 4-3 at the Garden in a game that didn't feature Kris Letang, and 3-1 at Consol Energy Center in a game without Sidney Crosby. Pittsburgh bounced back to win the next two, first a 4-1 win at the Garden in which Malkin scored twice and a 2-0 shutout win in Pittsburgh that started the Pens' current nine-game streak.
Thursday's match-up will tell us a lot about the top of the Eastern Conference. Who is truly the team to beat? Is it the "Black-and-Blueshirt" Rangers, looking weary for the first time this year (and perhaps running out of gas) who need a win over Pittsburgh to get their mojo back? Or is it the Penguins, finally healthy for the first time all season, rolling for the last three weeks behind the game's second-best player (or best?) and ready to sit atop the East, for the first time since December 8th, as many predicted in the summer?
Perhaps mast importantly, is Sidney Crosby legitimately healthy, and for the sake if the NHL, is he back for good?