Return of the King, Pt. 2Posted: 15/03/2012
So it’s official. Sidney Crosby will be back tonight against the New York Rangers. Huge news. It’s also been divulged that Crosby will play on the third line with Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke, and get third line minutes (~15) when he first comes back. Because there are many other places to go to debate line pairings and overall expectations for the return, I won’t really bother with them here. What I’m interested in exploring is if Sid can stay healthy and if he will stay healthy this time (hint: the answer is yes).
I do think that Sid can stay healthy this time, and there are several reasons why I’m buying into it. Most importantly, the whole world knows a lot more about what happened to him this time around, and knows what can be done in terms of treatment. I could be grossly mistaken, but I think that we have learned that since last leaving the lineup Crosby has experienced “concussion symptoms” including balance and focus issues resulting from the neck/vertebrae injury he sustained. This is a lot different than another actual concussion. This can be treated and prevented using (more) conventional medical treatments and probably physical therapy.
Another reason why I believe that Sid can stay healthy is because he doesn’t have to take up an undue burden. Of course, having watched Sid play for the last 6 years, you know he is still going to want to take up that burden, but the key is that he doesn’t have to. What he does for the rest of this season is not likely to define his career (well maybe it will if he has a Lemeiux-esque return, we can dream, right?). This year, this team belongs to Evgeni Malkin. He is the top threat that opposing teams will need to stop. Even beyond Malkin the Pens have three other 20 goal scorers (Neal, Staal, Kunitz) and Pascal Dupuis could make four if he nets 2 more in the final 14 regular season games. Whatever Crosby can contribute can just be viewed as bonus, and if he struggles, other guys will continue to step up to fill the void.
This is the biggest difference between Crosby’s first comeback and his return tomorrow night, when he first came back the team didn’t have the same chemistry and the same quality of play every game that they have been getting in the last 3 months, especially over this 9 game winning streak. With the first return, the team needed Crosby to come back. Malkin was still battling through a knee issue, the secondary scoring wasn’t there, and the team wasn’t living up to its potential (not that they were THAT bad, just weren’t as good as they could be, as we have seen they can be). When he went out after only 8 games, the team hit its lowest mark of the season, the lowest mark in several seasons really. Since then though, they have come into their own, they have battled adversity and have been made stronger for it. Now they have the chance to be even stronger with the return of the other best player in the league (along with Malkin of course). Oh, also it should be mentioned that the team’s best defenseman could be back in the lineup tonight too, and if not tonight, at least soon.
Now, why I think Crosby will stay healthy this time is a little simpler. This time Crosby will be eased back into game action, as mentioned above, Crosby won’t get huge minutes right from the start. This wasn’t the case last time and I think it really wore on Crosby’s condition to be playing 20+ minutes a night after 11 months away from competitive action. Playing Crosby on the third line will also be good for team chemistry. Rather than risk the chemistry of the Malkin or Staal lines, you have a situation where Crosby will be playing with Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy, two players who have been part of the Penguins organization for years and, although neither has much experience playing with Crosby, have been around him enough to know what to expect. These are veterans who will simply play with the hand they are dealt.
These wingers will also offer great protection for Sid. If things get ugly there is no one I would want to have my back more than Matt Cooke, and Tyler Kennedy is no slouch when it comes to the physical game either. Before I had heard it confirmed that Crosby was going to play on the third line, I was prepared to argue that maybe you do need someone to protect him, regardless of which line he is with. This was common practice in the old NHL: the biggest superstars were always protected by the biggest goons on a shift by shift basis. Now, I’m not advocating that the Pens recall Steve McIntyre and plug him in every night next to Crosby, but a guy with a hitter’s reputation and deceptive offensive skills, aka Matt Cooke, could help foster a perfect, and safe environment for Crosby’s return.
No doubt about it this is a huge game. The Pens can move to within two of the Rangers, they could run their win streak into double digits, they get one of the world’s best back, and possibly even a future Norris Trophy candidate (probably would have been a finalist this year if not for his own concussion problems). It’s hard not to be excited about this team. It’s hard not to get excited about what the next couple of months could bring. I know there are 14 regular season games left, and I know I should be the calm voice of stoicism and that anything can happen between now and June, but what the hell, this is a fan blog, and I’m a fan. LET’S GO PENS.