In a revival fit for Broadway, Sidney Crosby comes to town Thursday and laces up his skates for the first time since Dec. 5. And the locale couldn’t be more dramatic: Pittsburgh has won nine straight games and is hot on the heels of the Atlantic Division-leading Rangers, who are ahead of the second-place Penguins by six points.
A regulation victory swings the pendulum toward the Penguins, cutting the gap to four points, with a game in hand. “If we win, it puts a whole new spin on it. It’ll be playoff-kind of hockey,” Pittsburgh coach Dan Byslma said today.
With each team a playoff lock, seeding matters. The reward for finishing No. 1 is a first-round series against the No. 8 seed in the East; the second-place finisher would end up fourth, drawing a tougher matchup, the No. 5 seed.
The presence of No. 87 undoubtedly will be felt, from the extra media descending on the Garden, to the jeers from the Rangers faithful, to Crosby’s talents on the ice. On Nov. 21, when he returned from an earlier hiatus due to concussion symptoms, he scored two goals and two assists against the Islanders.
“I’m just excited to get started,” Crosby said today. “It’s always a big stage playing in certain buildings and that’s one of them.”
Rangers captain Ryan Callahan, who is possible for tonight despite having been sidelined with a bruised foot, said the Blueshirts would be aggressive. “I think you’ve got to go right at him…you can’t back off at all,” Callahan told WFAN as the Rangers enjoyed an off-day. “If you give him time or space he’s going to make you pay. It’s great for the league that he’s back; at the same time we’ve got to treat him like any other superstar and finish our checks.”
Byslma intends to move Crosby to the point on the power play, but no matter where he is deployed, he is dangerous. In 38 games against the Rangers, Crosby has 54 points: 20 goals (eight on the power play, three game-winners) and 34 assists (14 on the power play). In his only appearance against the Blueshirts this season, on Nov. 29, he recorded two assists in a 4-3 Rangers win.
“For us to get another two points would be huge,” Callahan said, “with their recent success and how close they are to us in the standings. It’s a game we’ll get up for and it’s a little bit more important to us.”
In addition to the captains, one or two offensive-minded defensemen could return. Bylsma wants to see Kris Letang (9-31-40 in 40), out with concussion-like issues since a hit on Feb. 29, skate in the morning and be ready. “He’s heading toward being in.” Michael Del Zotto, whose right hip injury has kept him sidelined for the last three, is day-to-day.
Two Vezina Trophy candidates will be between the pipes: Marc-Andre Fleury and Henrik Lundqvist, who is 2-2-0, 2.28 and a .931 save percentage vs. the Pens this season. Fleury is 20-12-7 in his career starts vs. the Blueshirts, with a 2.72 GAA and .909 save percentage.
With Crosby back, the PK better be sharp. Opponents haven’t scored in five of the last seven (90.9 percent), but the Pens rank sixth in the league without The Kid.
Brad Richards, with five goals in his last three games, has been successful against the Pens, with two goals and four points in the four matches…The Rangers have won four of the last six and have at least a point in nine of 12.