Crosby returns for big matchup against Rangers

Sidney Crosby is stepping back into the Pittsburgh Penguins’

lineup, back into the thick of a playoff race and back into the NHL

spotlight with the hope that his concussion troubles are behind him

for good.

Of course, that was also his feeling in November when he made

his first comeback from a head injury that has sidelined him since

early January 2011.

Crosby skated with his teammates Thursday morning in preparation

for that night’s game with the New York Rangers, who are atop the

Eastern Conference and Atlantic Division – six points ahead of the

Penguins. The Pittsburgh captain has been limited to eight games

this season because of a recurrence of concussion symptoms that cut

his season way short a year ago.

Crosby has been out since Dec. 5, missing 40 games this

season.

”I don’t expect to get hit more than I did prior,” Crosby

said. ”I feel like I was always kind of tested physically before I

had a concussion, so I don’t expect it to be any different.”

He also doesn’t figure to go at half-speed or try to avoid

contact. Crosby isn’t looking to have his ice time reduced too

much, and he doesn’t want to miss any of Pittsburgh’s final 14

games as the Penguins try to catch the Rangers.

”You’ve got to play the same way, whether you’ve gone through

this before or you didn’t,” the 24-year-old team said. ”The more

you hesitate in a game, the more your chance of getting hit. Your

focus isn’t there. When you hesitate, usually you’re in trouble.

That’s why you practice hard and test yourself and make sure you’re

ready. I’m more than confident in that.”

Crosby made quite a splash in his season debut Nov. 21 when he

had two goals – including the game-winner – and added two assists

in the Penguins’ 5-0 home victory over the New York Islanders. He

had 10 points in eight games and recorded at least one point in

five contests before getting hurt again.

”Tonight and moving forward, I don’t expect to be where I was

14 months ago,” Crosby said. ”I expect to be a pretty good hockey

player, do things and contribute, get a better idea of where I’m at

once I start playing games. I’m not going out there just trying to

kill time.”

He is jumping right into a stretch in which the Penguins will

visit three consecutive division rivals – the Rangers, New Jersey

and Philadelphia – in a span of four days.

And the Penguins are getting healthy at just the right time.

Defenseman Kris Letang also is returning Thursday following a

five-game absence because of concussion symptoms. Letang sat out 21

games earlier this season because of a concussion sustained Nov. 26

at Montreal.

”They’ve got a really good team, no doubt about that,” Rangers

forward Brandon Dubinsky said. ”They are dangerous, but at the

same time we’re a really good team, too. This is definitely going

to be an intense game right from the get-go as they all are against

the Penguins, no matter who is playing.

”We’re not thinking about who is in their lineup or who is not

in their lineup because they are a dangerous team either way.”

The Rangers will have to play a second straight game without No.

1 goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who is still feeling some effects of the

flu. He took part in the morning skate but didn’t feel well enough

to play after spending two days in bed. Martin Biron, who beat

Carolina on Tuesday in the opener of New York’s seven-game

homestand, will be back in the nets.

New York also will be without captain Ryan Callahan (bruised

foot) and defenseman Michael Del Zotto (hip). Callahan has missed

five of the past eight games. Del Zotto has sat out four of

seven.

Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma has Crosby slated to join the third

line alongside wingers Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy, see time on

the point on the power play and log about 15 minutes.

When Bylsma approached Crosby about which of the next three

games he would pick to miss if he had to, the coach already knew

the answer – none of them.

”It’s a joke,” Bylsma said. ”He wouldn’t sit out against the

Devils; he wouldn’t sit out against Philadelphia. There is no way.

He doesn’t need to play every game, either. He doesn’t need to play

22 minutes tonight. He doesn’t need to play every shift for our

team. Yes, we’ve given it forethought; yes, we try to understand

he’s getting back into playing hockey for the next 14 games to get

ready for the playoffs.

”There’s been some consideration to that as to whose line he’s

on, how many minutes he’s going to play. We’ll make sure we’re

monitoring that as we go forward, whether it’s game to game or even

within a game. There really is no thought in my mind that he’s not

going to play all 14 games.”

Crosby is joining a powerful team that entered Thursday on a

nine-game winning streak. Although they are the team chasing the

Rangers, there is no sense of urgency that No. 87 has to save the

season.

”He didn’t feel like the organization was in dire straits and

he had to get back before he was 100 percent healthy,” said Cooke,

who was also a linemate of Crosby’s in the past. ”I think as

teammates that’s the best thing we’ve could’ve done for him.

”Who wouldn’t want to play with the best player in the world?

He creates so much stuff on his own, let alone if I can create some

room for him in the offensive zone on the forecheck. I’ve just got

to go out and do what I do best.”

Bylsma laughed off any notion that it will be difficult to work

Crosby back into a team that has been surging without him.

”Everyone wants to get Sidney Crosby back in our lineup,”

Bylsma said. ”Everyone wants to get Sidney Crosby back on our

power play and back in our mix. I think it’s great, at this point

in time, when you have 14 games.

”There’s going to be some adjustment, adjustment in the lines,

playing time. The power play is going to be different and look

different. There’s a significant amount of time to get some of

those adjustments. If it’s a problem, it’s a good problem to

have.”

Rangers coach John Tortorella had no interest in discussing

Crosby’s return or the Penguins’ hard charge at his team.

”We’re worried about our club,” he said tersely. ”All we’re

concerned about is the New York Rangers, as always.”