Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Ruler's Back

sidney crosby injury
The league's hottest team just got back the league's best player. The Pittsburgh Penguins have won 10 games in a row, 13 of their last 15, and now have Sidney Crosby back in the lineup to go alongside MVP candidate Evgeni Malkin.

Crosby returned to the lineup on March 15 against the top team in the Eastern Conference, the New York Rangers, and contributed one assist to a 5-2 Penguins victory. The lone assist wasn't close to the dramatic four point outburst Crosby registered against the New York Islanders the first time he came back from an injury this season, but the Rangers bear no similarities to their pathetic New York cousins.

With Crosby, the Penguins now add a player with the fifth highest points-per-game total of all-time to an offence that has already scored the second most goals in the league. It will be head coach Dan Bylsma's task to fit Crosby seamlessly into a lineup that is playing as well as any team in the league.

Pittsburgh have been led by a top-line of Malkin, James Neal, and Chris Kunitz, who have contributed over 40% of the offense for the surging Pens. Malkin leads the league in points and is second in goals, and will undoubtedly find his name on the Hart Trophy ballot by season's end. Accordingly, Bylsma won't dare break up his top line, so finding wingers that have some chemistry with Crosby will be something to tinker with down the stretch.

Amazingly, the offense wasn't the only part of the team that improved on March 15. Defenceman Kris Letang also rejoined the club after missing over 20 games with a concussion. Letang's return was overshadowed by Crosby's, but Letang is another key cog for the Penguins, who even without the defensive stalwart have allowed the fifth fewest goals in  the league. Adding Letang gives the Penguins a Norris Trophy-calibre player on the back-end—just another weapon for a loaded team poised for a deep playoff run.

Finally the Penguins have a full lineup, which has visions of Stanley Cup glory dancing through the minds of Penguins fans. The team made it to back-to-back finals in 2008 and 2009, winning Lord Stanley's mug in 2009 for the first time since the days of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr.

The success of the franchise so early into the careers of Malkin, Crosby, Letang, and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury made it look like the Penguins were on the verge of a dynasty. However, two straight injury plagued seasons and quick playoff exits led many to wonder whether injuries would rob the team of its true potential.

Over the last two seasons Malkin and Crosby alone have spent close to 100 games on the injured reserved. Astonishingly, Crosby's return against the Rangers was only the third time since the beginning of the 2010-11 season that Malkin, Crosby, and Jordan Staal have been in the lineup together.

The team can only hope that the days of endless doctor's visits are over, and that the only headaches are caused by too much celebratory champagne, because a healthy Pittsburgh Penguins spells trouble for the rest of the league.

Crosby is back. The balance of power has shifted in the Eastern Conference, and perhaps the entire league. The road to the Stanley Cup now goes through Pittsburgh.

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