The Eastern Conference's hottest team is about to get even stronger with the return of its superstar.
After missing a little more than three months because of concussion-like symptoms and neck problems, Sidney Crosby returns Thursday night at Madison Square Garden when the Pittsburgh Penguins try to win their 10th straight game and put more heat on the conference-leading New York Rangers.
Pittsburgh (42-21-5) has been one of the NHL's best teams while going 21-4-1 since a six-game skid Dec. 29-Jan. 11. That surge has helped the Penguins move within six points of the Atlantic Division-leading Rangers (44-18-7). The return of Crosby would only seem to make them an even more legitimate Stanley Cup contender.
"It's a great step for him and our hockey team,'' general manager Ray Shero said. "I know our team's been looking forward to having him back in our lineup.''
Crosby was the NHL's biggest star before he suffered hits to the head in consecutive games Jan. 1-5, 2011. He missed the rest of that season and the first six weeks of this one before returning to record two goals and 10 assists in eight games. Out since Dec. 5, Crosby believes he's in better shape now than before his health problems began last season.
"I'm just trying to make sure I progressed and remain symptom free,'' said Crosby, who was dealing with dizziness and headaches as recently as December. "Everything's gone really well."
Crosby will play on the third line with Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy as coach Dan Bylsma plans to ease his star back into the mix.
"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," Bylsma said. "I know how fast he's going to go."
Crosby, who had two assists in a 4-3 loss at New York on Nov. 29, re-joins a Pittsburgh team that has outscored opponents 35-13 during the nine-game winning stretch. Hart Trophy candidate Evgeni Malkin, tied for the league lead with 84 points, had three assists during a 5-2 win over Boston on Sunday. Marc-Andre Fleury has a 1.59 goals-against average while winning his last eight starts.
In addition to Crosby, the Penguins could have top defenseman Kris Letang back Thursday from a five-game absence because of a concussion.
"We really like the feel we have here,'' said forward James Neal, who had a goal with two assists Sunday. "Especially if we're at full strength with Sid and (Letang).''
That might not bode well for the Rangers, who have been outscored 6-1 while losing their last two against the Penguins after winning the first two meetings this season. Malkin scored twice during a 4-1 win at MSG on Jan. 19 and Fleury made 27 saves in a 2-0 victory over the Rangers on Feb. 21.
"You have to be aware of all the other weapons Pittsburgh has," defenseman Ryan McDonagh told the Rangers' official website. "It's not just (Crosby)."
Despite the results of the last two games and the return of Crosby, the Rangers are only concerned with their own play as they try for a third straight victory overall.
"We just want to focus on playing and improving our game no matter who we play," said Rangers forward Carl Hagelin, who had a goal and two assists in a 4-2 win over Carolina on Tuesday.
New York's Brad Richards has five goals in the last three games after being held to three in his previous 27 contests. He has two and two assists versus Pittsburgh this season.
Henrik Lundqvist hopes to be back in net after being scratched Tuesday with the flu. He's posted a 2.28 GAA against the Penguins in 2011-12.