Pittsburgh Penguins (42-21-5, 89 pts) @ New York Rangers (44-18-7, 95 pts)
A highly anticipated Eastern Conference showdown tonight in New York features the return of Sidney Crosby who last played on December 5th.
In a pivotal matchup, Crosby is known to shine against the Rangers where he has 20 goals and 34 assists for 54 points in 38 career games vs New York.
“I think it’s unrealistic to think he’s going to step into MSG and be the only show on the ice but I know how the guy plays,” head coach Dan Bylsma said. “I know how fast he’s going to go.”
The return of the NHL’s best player has fans and even media types ready to plan a Cup parade for the surging Penguins, winners of nine straight. Even some GM’s around the league believe Pittsburgh is now very well the team to beat.
“They’re obviously, I think, the best team in the league, ” Rangers GM Glen Sather said this week at the GM meetings. “With him back, it’s certainly going to make it a lot more difficult, ” Sather said whose Rangers own the best record in the Eastern Conference.
Before any one gets ready to plan a parade down 5th avenue, it remains a mystery of whether Crosby can make it healthy down the stretch or through the playoffs. Since January 6, 2011, Crosby has played in just 8 of the Penguins last 116 games (including playoffs).
What to expect from Crosby tonight:
He will center the third line of Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy and head coach Dan Bylsma is looking to manage his minutes in the 14-15 minute range. Crosby will also work the right point and if Kris Letang plays tonight, Crosby will be the primary puck carrier on the power play, a role Steve Sullivan normally plays. Sullivan is expected to be bumped down to the No. 2 unit in certain situations.
There’s a lot of fuss regarding Crosby’s linemates but playing him with Kennedy and Cooke is just a move to ease him back into things. In the final handful of regular season games, Bylsma intends to do a lot of tinkering and using Jordan Staal and Crosby for a look. However, many believe come playoff time, Crosby and Chris Kunitz will be re-united with Jordan Staal centering the third line of Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy.
PENS REGARD TONIGHT’S GAME AS MUST-WIN?
Inside the locker room, head coach Dan Bylsma is calling tonight’s game a must-win when it comes to the Penguins division hopes. Pittsburgh with a game in hand, trails the Rangers by six points with 14 games remaining. Tonight is the 5th of six games this season between the division rivals.
There is a huge difference between being the No. 1 and No. 4 seed.
Earning the No. 1 seed, would have the Penguins avoiding a likely No. 4 – No. 5 matchup against Philadelphia or New Jersey, where as being the No. 1 seed would peg the Penguins against a number of vulnerable teams including Florida, Washington, Buffalo or Winnipeg as things stand right now in the Eastern Conference race.
The Rangers and Penguins have been tremendous on home ice this season. The Rangers are 24-7-2, while the Penguins are 24-8-2 at home.
— Expectations are that Kris Letang will play tonight as the Penguins should have a full group of healthy skaters with Paul Martin ready to return from an illness.
— Marc-Andre Fleury has a 1.59 goals-against average while winning his last eight starts
— Evgeni Malkin comes into tonight’s game tied with Steve Stamkos for the NHL points lead with 84.
— The Penguins have outscored their opponents 35-13 during their nine game winning streak.
— Pittsburgh is second in the NHL in goal differential with a +46.