With the Kid, Pens primed for run

It’s not often that the best player in hockey has to worry about fitting in, but that’s exactly the situation Sidney Crosby was in Thursday night as he made his long-awaited return to the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup.

There’s not a hotter team in the NHL than the Pens, who had won nine straight and 12 of 14 heading into their marquee matchup with the New York Rangers.

And Crosby, who hadn’t played since Dec. 5 — a stretch of 40 games — and had only played eight games in the past 14 months as a result of a severe concussion, was understandably concerned that him being back on the ice might throw off the delicate balance his team had found.

“I didn’t want to be that guy,” Crosby said, laughing at his locker after the Pens’ 5-2 win.

Fortunately, his worries were baseless, and Crosby’s performance in the rout of the undermanned, East-leading Rangers showed not only that he should have no trouble making a seamless transition back, but also that Pittsburgh’s resurgence should be believed.

Pittsburgh already was a team to be feared before Crosby’s return — a squad with “playoff spoiler” written all over it — and now that Crosby is seemingly healthy and the Pens are at full strength, they’re a Stanley Cup run waiting to happen.

“The possibilities are unlimited,” said blue-liner Kris Letang, who also returned to the ice after missing the previous five games — not to mention the 21 he sat out earlier this season — as a result of a concussion.

“We have a great team, and especially our goaltending has been unbelievable this year. Having Sid back just adds more depth to our team.”

Crosby started Thursday night’s game against Pittsburgh’s Atlantic Division rival on the bench, but it didn’t take long for him to get on the ice and show his worth. His first shift resulted in a Penguins goal, and Crosby later added assists on the Pittsburgh’s last two goals of the game, his 11th and 12th of the season.

“You probably overthink it a little early on because you want to be sharp and want to be prepared and all those things,” Crosby said. “But when you look back to when you played normally, you don’t really think a whole lot. As time goes by, you get used to doing that and things slow down a bit more. I think early on, it’s always the case, you’re thinking a lot more than you should.”

Overall, Crosby’s stats Thursday were hardly staggering. The 24-year old logged 16 minutes of ice time over the course of 18 shifts and had just one shot on goal. He played 4:24 on the power play and won just 11 of 21 faceoffs.

He didn’t rack up four points, like he did against the Islanders on Nov. 21 in his first game back from his original concussion — one that kept him out of the final 41 games of last year’s regular season, all seven playoff games last season and the first 20 games of this season. But that’s not what the Penguins need from him right now, and he knows that.

“I was just trying to calm myself a little bit more than I was last time,” Crosby said. “I was pretty excited — and I was obviously excited this time — but I didn’t want to get caught trying to do too much. I was just making sure I was responsible out there and doing the right things.

“All those details are important, especially in big games like this. I was just trying to make sure I stayed as even keel as I could. It wasn’t easy, but to get the result we got and to play the way we did obviously makes it a lot easier.”

The Penguins have played that way a lot lately and are within four points of the Rangers for the lead in both the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference.

Philadelphia and New Jersey are right on Pittsburgh’s tail, however, and it’s clear that whoever comes out ahead in the Atlantic rat race after the final 10-plus games of the regular season will earn the top seed in the conference heading into the playoffs.

“We want to get first in the division,” Pens coach Dan Bylsma said. “That’s been our goal all along. It’s not something new; it’s not something we dreamed up three weeks ago. We wanted that to be the case. We’ve been a long ways away at 10 and 11, 12 points (back) at times, but we’ve put this 10 in a row together, we’ve beaten (the Rangers) twice, and we’re in a situation where we still are looking at the Rangers ahead of us and want to catch them.”

And if they do — but really, even if they don’t — the Penguins could prove dangerous in the postseason.

As Crosby, Letang and defenseman Paul Martin return to an already-loaded roster, a playoff meeting with the Pens becomes a scarier and scarier. With all of their weapons finally back in place, the Penguins may prove to be the matchup nightmare many expected them to be when the season started.

“They’re trying to match up against Evgeni Malkin’s line, and here’s Jordan Staal on our bench, and Sidney Crosby on our bench,” Bylsma said. “It’s certainly the start of seeing a healthy team. . . . Even in 60 minutes of ice time, you can see it’d be tough to play against.”

Crosby wasn’t the Crosby of old on Thursday, but no one expected him to be. At this point, it’s been so long since we’ve seen a full-strength Crosby that it’s tough to know just how good he is or just what he’s capable of.

What they need from Crosby right now is just for him to be out there.

"I don’t expect to be where I was 14 months ago," Crosby said after the team’s morning skate Thursday. "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."

Crosby’s progress over the next few weeks may determine how high the Penguins’ playoff ceiling truly is, but for right now, it’s just good to have him back on the ice.

Follow Sam Gardner on Twitter: @sam_gardner