Crosby returns as Penguins begin critical stretch

WILL GRAVES AP Sports Writer Published:

PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Dan Bylsma pulled out his marker a few weeks ago and drew a big circle around March 15.

The Pittsburgh Penguins coach did it long before captain Sidney Crosby announced he was ready to return following a three-month layoff due to concussion-like symptoms. He did it long before the Penguins ripped off nine straight wins to put some pressure on the Eastern Conference-leading New York Rangers.

The only thing Bylsma knew at the time was that if the Penguins had any hope of catching New York they had to win at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, then do it again on Saturday in New Jersey and Sunday in Philadelphia.

Pittsburgh has certainly looked like the best team in the league while ripping off nine straight wins to creep within six points of the Rangers with just over three weeks left in the regular season. Beating three big rivals in a span of four days -- all on the road -- would certainly prove it.

"We know we're a good team, we've played big games and we've won big games and we have three big games coming up," Bylsma said. "I think these three games will be a real good indication of where we're going to finish."

Yet the Penguins find themselves entering the most critical stretch of their season trying to find a delicate balance between the present and the future. The return of Crosby and defenseman Kris Letang, who is likely to play after missing the last two weeks with concussion-like symptoms of his own, means the Penguins are healthy for the first time since Crosby's brief return last fall.

Crosby joked on Tuesday he didn't want to talk about the prospect of sitting on a crowded bench for fear of jinxing it. Neither does Bylsma, though he allows putting the right faces in the right places will take some time.

"We haven't had this situation in a while," Bylsma said. "I know speaking from the eight games we played earlier this season, players fall on different spots on the team and ice times and different lines and that's a feeling-out process."

A process that includes having Crosby team with Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy on the third line against the Rangers. Bylsma wants to ease Crosby back into the mix, something that would be difficult if he put him on one of the top two lines.

Then again, Bylsma knows there's only so much he can do. At some point he's going to have to let Crosby go out and be Crosby. The 24-year-old former MVP scored twice in his season debut against the New York Islanders on Nov. 21.

Topping it would be virtually impossible, right?

"I think it's unrealistic to think he's going to step into MSG and be the only show on the ice, but I know how the guy plays," Bylsma said. "I know how fast he's going to go. I know what's going to happen when he has the puck with speed."

Crosby won't try to overdo it. Considering how well the team played without him -- the Penguins are 16-4-1 in their last 21 games -- he just doesn't want to mess things up.

"I just want to contribute and make sure I'm doing my part," he said.

The Penguins hope that's enough to help propel them past the Rangers and secure home ice throughout the playoffs. They've spent the last two months stalking the Rangers, in part by finding ways to beat good teams. Pittsburgh is 12-1 in its last 13 games against teams in the top eight in either conference.

Among the victories is a 2-0 shutout of the Rangers last month and a 5-2 win over defending Stanley Cup-champion Boston last Sunday, when the Penguins pounced with three goals in the first period and pushed the Bruins all over Consol Energy Center.

The pivotal moment came just over 7 minutes into the game when the puck skittered to the corner. Pittsburgh forward James Neal gave chase, only to find massive Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara in his way. Rather than slow down, Neal sped up and knocked the 6-foot-9 Chara off balance, freeing up the puck in the process.

The sequence ended with Pittsburgh defenseman Matt Niskanen scoring his fourth goal of the season, though the indelible image isn't Niskanen's slap shot but Neal's aggressive move against arguably the most intimidating player in the game.

It's the kind of play Neal knows he's going to have to repeat many times over the next three months if the Penguins are going to win their second Stanley Cup in four years.

"We want to show teams we can play lots of different ways," Neal said. "Yeah, we can score but we can be physical too. You need to be that way if you want to make a run."

One the Penguins hope to start on Thursday.