Streaking Penguins surging into second half
The Pittsburgh Penguins milled quietly about their dressing room deep inside Consol Energy Center on Monday, slowly getting back to work following a welcomed few days off for the All-Star break.
As the players chatted about their current seven-game winning streak, the spectacular play of center Evgeni Malkin and the prospects of catching the New York Rangers for the Eastern Conference lead, a familiar image flickered on a nearby TV. More than one player stopped to watch.
There was Sidney Crosby, streaking down the ice against the New York Islanders on Nov. 21, scoring in spectacular fashion.
As solid as the NHL's hottest team has looked over the last two weeks, the main question heading into the stretch remains the same now as it did when the season began in October.
When is Sid the Kid coming back?
And while coach Dan Bylsma refuses to put a timetable on Crosby's return, there at least appears to be a sense of optimism despite news over the weekend the 24-year-old superstar suffered a neck injury last January that perhaps complicated his nearly 11-month recovery from a concussion.
Bylsma said Crosby worked at a ''pretty good clip'' during his session, adding Pittsburgh's captain was ''pretty excited'' to be back at work, even in a limited capacity.
At least it gave Crosby a respite from the latest round of drama surrounding his comeback. The team acknowledged on Saturday that neurological spine specialist Dr. Robert S. Bray in Los Angeles discovered an unspecified neck injury that was ''fully healed.''
An independent physician is studying the findings before the team makes any sort of determination on Crosby's next step.
Though the revelation about the game's most famous player seemed to overshadow the All-Star festivities, Crosby's teammates took it in stride.
''Anything that's progressing for him to get healthy and getting back to 100 percent and feeling like Sidney Crosby does is a positive,'' Pittsburgh forward Chris Kunitz said. ''If he's skating and doing things, that's good for him as a person and that's what counts.''
Bylsma declined to get into specifics about Crosby's condition and prognosis pending a report from the independent physician, saying only Crosby was ''nowhere'' close to being cleared for contact.
Crosby hasn't played since the concussion-like symptoms resurfaced following a loss to Boston on Dec. 5. He skated with his teammates during a swing through Florida earlier this month but hadn't been on his home ice in 54 days.
He's spent the last couple weeks visiting several specialists hoping for answers, and though Bray's findings were a surprise, Crosby's teammates don't believe it's a sign Crosby has no faith in the team's medical staff.
''I think that in any situation or any injury or any NHL player, if you look long enough, hard enough you'd find something too,'' forward Matt Cooke said. ''No one doubted there was something bugging Sid and if this was it, maybe they can move on with it.''
At the moment, the Penguins are getting by just fine without the 2009 league MVP. Their seven-game run is the franchise's longest winning streak in 14 months and Malkin has stormed to the top of the scoring race by playing arguably the best hockey of his career.
Not bad for a team that looked on the brink of panic during a six-game slide earlier this month.
''That's how seasons go,'' Kunitz said. ''Everybody goes through injuries, highs and lows. I think it builds character in the locker room.''
Though Crosby's status remains a focal point, the Penguins believe they can make a deep playoff run even if Crosby remains sidelined.
Having the hottest player in hockey helps. Malkin leads the NHL with 58 points, scoring nine goals during the winning streak. Linemate James Neal has been nearly as hot, scoring six times to move into second-place in the NHL in goals scored.
Their production has overshadowed a power outage on the other three lines. Cooke hasn't scored since Dec. 10, while Dupuis hasn't found the back of the net in more than a month.
''If (Malkin and Neal) want to keep scoring, I'm not going to stop them,'' Dupuis said. ''Everybody is chipping in when you're winning. But down the stretch some other guys than Evgeni Malkin and James Neal need to score goals.''
Yet with Malkin and Neal healthy and playing well, the Penguins are in much better position than they were a season ago, when they struggled to score goals while Malkin and Crosby watched the season fizzle out from the press box.
Crosby may remain there for awhile, but the Penguins are optimistic they can avoid an early playoff exit.
''All of the things we want to get are fully in reach and we've got to make sure we don't look too far ahead and stay what's at task,'' Cooke said. ''Guys are going to get healthy and that's going to help us out big time.''