Crosby’s return brings leader back, too

The Penguins were arguably the NHL’s best team without Sidney Crosby. After his successful return, a case can be made to remove the "arguably" and not just because of Crosby’s individual talents.

In the hours following Sidney Crosby’s stellar season debut on Monday, so much of the media scurried to remove the “arguably” from “the Penguins are arguably the best team in the league.”

But lost amid the oohs and aahs of Crosby’s offensive fireworks was not the skill that generated two goals and two assists, but the more important albeit intangible benefit. At least until Crosby’s linemate, Penguins winger Chris Kunitz, pointed it out.

“It was great to have Sid back, our captain and our leader,” Kunitz said. “He adds so much to our team.”

Oh, yeah. How soon we forget. The Penguins didn’t just lose their star and the league’s poster boy for 10 months and 61 regular-season games. They lost their captain.

For 10 months, Pittsburgh went without a C on one of its crests. And the alternate captains’ As have been sporadically rotated, since letterbearers Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal and Brooks Orpik have all also missed significant time to injury.

Crosby’s return didn’t just stabilize the roster, but more importantly the team’s leadership.

Not that the Pens were in disarray in Crosby’s absence. Adjusting to a more defensive game with a bigger emphasis on puck possession allowed Pittsburgh to go 34-19-8 without Crosby in the lineup. And while logic almost demands to reason that a good team with one of the world’s premier talents added can only get better, it’s more than the points that Crosby offers Pittsburgh – it’s the inspiration from a captain that’s been missing.

“Like I keep saying, Sid is a piece of the puzzle, probably the biggest one if you ask around,” said Pascal Dupuis, Crosby’s other linemate. “He is a piece of the puzzle but we do all play as a team and we all dedicate ourselves to the system. He’s one of those guys that does it with more talent, with more awareness on the ice. He does everything the right way.”

The question going forward for Pittsburgh is whether that inspiration and added talent will balance the pains of adjusting to a new dynamic. Crosby’s addition to the lineup didn’t just bump Joe Vitale to a healthy-scratch status, it changed the roles of a lot of teammates.

Malkin, James Neal and Steve Sullivan were having a great start to the season working as the top line. With second billing, that trio may suffer from reduced ice time, or it may thrive with more favorable line matchups.

Staal, who had already netted 10 goals, now returns to a more defensive role as the third-line center. Kunitz may have gotten his old linemate back, but lost his spot on the top power-play unit to No. 87. And Steve MacIntyre, the muscle Pittsburgh brought in during the offseason to replace Eric Godard, may find more playing time if he’s needed to ride shotgun with Crosby like Dave Semenko once did with Wayne Gretzky.

As Penguins coach Dan Bylsma was quick to point out, there’s still a lot of hockey left to play – after Monday night, 61 more games before the playoffs, to be exact. There will be plenty of time for team dynamics to change again. Crosby’s return was just a start.

But a good start at that.

Atlantic Division Notes

The New York Rangers will unveil the jerseys they will wear during the Winter Classic on Monday. Their opponent in that game, the Philadelphia Flyers, have already unveiled their home jerseys for the event. The Flyers’ gear will be predominantly orange, with the standard team logo and black and white accents. . . . . The Rangers’ roster for the Winter Classic Alumni game will include Brian Leetch, Adam Graves, John Vanbiesbrouck, Mike Gartner and Glenn Anderson with the coaching staff including Mike Keenan and Emile Francis. They will face a Philadelphia alumni roster that includes Bobby Clarke, Eric Lindros, John LeClair, Rick Tocchet, and Eric Desjardins skating for coach Pat Quinn.