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Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby skates during hockey practice in Montreal. Crosby is still recovering from a concussion and neck injury that have sidelined him for most of the season. The Penguins star ruled himself out for Sunday's game against Boston but is optimistic he could play for the first time since early December when the team travels to play the Eastern Conference-leading New York Rangers on Thursday. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Paul Chiasson, File) (Paul Chiasson/AP)
Pittsburgh Penguins Sidney Crosby skates during hockey practice in Montreal. Crosby is still recovering from a concussion and neck injury that have sidelined him for most of the season. The Penguins star ruled himself out for Sunday's game against Boston but is optimistic he could play for the first time since early December when the team travels to play the Eastern Conference-leading New York Rangers on Thursday. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Paul Chiasson, File) (Paul Chiasson/AP)

The Look Ahead

All eyes focused on Sidney Crosby's return Add to ...

This is the biggest week of the season for Sidney Crosby, not to mention the New York Rangers, and by extension the NHL.

All eyes will be on Broadway Thursday night in the expectation Crosby will make his second long-awaited comeback of the season. Even better for the NHL, it will come in a showdown between Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins and the Rangers for what could be first place in the Eastern Conference and the Atlantic Division. Before the slumping Rangers played the New York Islanders on Sunday night, the Penguins pulled within two points of them with a win over the Boston Bruins, their ninth in succession.

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Crosby tantalized the hockey world on the weekend when he talked about the possibility of coming back from his concussion problems in a big game against the Rangers.

“Any game at this point is going to be exciting, to be honest with you,” Crosby said. “If anything, a bigger game like that you’re focused even more on making sure you are that much more ready.

“This isn’t the time to kind of just go out there and feel your way around. These are important games and I’ve got to make sure I’m ready and responsible out there.”

There is no shortage of people advising Crosby to avoid any risk to his health by skipping the rest of this season and coming back next fall, the latest being CBC broadcaster Don Cherry. However, the Penguins’ recent success primed their hopes for a long playoff run starting next month and there is no doubt Crosby wants to be part of it as long as his doctors approve.

The funny thing is, he’ll be the highest-paid second-line centre in the league when he comes back for the Penguins. In Crosby’s absence, Evgeni Malkin, who had three assists against the Bruins on Sunday to take over the league’s points race with 84 in 61 games, took an iron grip on the No. 1 centre’s job.

“He doesn’t need to be Superman,” Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma said of the expectations Crosby will face over the Penguins’ last 14 games of the season if he plays Thursday.

With Malkin in the running for the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most-valuable player and centre Jordan Staal coming back from injury to contribute 37 points in 47 games, fitting Crosby into a powerful lineup will be a pleasant problem for Bylsma. He mused on the weekend about playing Crosby with Pascal Dupuis and Staal, presumably with the latter moving to the wing.

Actually, Crosby may be one of the Rangers’ lesser worries. They went into the Islander game with their first three-game losing streak of the season and happy to have the comfort of a seven-game homestand.

The Penguins, given their 21-5-1 record since Jan. 11, are the toughest team the Rangers will face in the seven games at Madison Square Garden. But they also have to face the Detroit Red Wings, New Jersey Devils and the red-hot Colorado Avalanche.

Most teams, of course, would love to have the Rangers’ problems. Injuries and fatigue are the major culprits, as the Rangers have been fading late in recent games. But that may be fixed by the home stand, which ends Mar. 23.

With forward Ryan Callahan (foot) and defenceman Michael Del Zotto (hip) out of the lineup, the Rangers called up 24-year-old forward Mats Zuccarello from their American Hockey League team on Sunday, where he’d been averaging a point per game.

QUOTABLE

“I think there’s always a tendency to have high expectations. I’ve always had high expectations of myself so I want to get in there as soon as I’m ready. I don’t think this is something where you just miss games to miss games, That’s not the case at all. When you’ve been off this long it’s whenever you can get in, you just want to get back.”

- Sidney Crosby on his hoped-for return this week.

CROSBY CONTRACT

One of the things complicated by Sidney Crosby’s concussion is his contract situation. Crosby, 24, still has one year left on his current deal, which carries a salary-cap hit of $8.7-million.

However, under NHL rules he and the Pittsburgh Penguins can begin negotiating a new deal on July 1. Penguins general manager Ray Shero maintains Crosby’s long absence due to the concussion and any potential health problems in the future will not be a factor in his negotiations with Crosby’s agent, Pat Brisson. Shero says his only interest is wrapping up Crosby for the long-term.

One problem for Shero and Brisson is the looming collective-agreement negotiations between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. Hammering out a long-term contract before the new agreement is in place will not be easy.

AVALANCHE HOLDS HARD TO EIGHTH PLACE

Raise your hand, anyone who saw this coming. By now, the Colorado Avalanche were supposed to be well out of playoff contention after general manager Greg Sherman’s rebuilding plan took a tumble earlier this season.

But a few of his moves are paying early dividends and the young Avs have a tentative grip on eighth place in the Western Conference. After a home game against Anaheim on Monday, the Avs’ mettle will be tested with a road trip through Buffalo and New Jersey, ending with a game against the New York Rangers on Saturday.

Key to the rise is rejuvenated goaltender Semyon Varlamov, whose expensive acquisition last summer was much mocked, and rookie Gabriel Landeskog. Varlamov lost his No. 1 job at one point but is now playing well again, while Landeskog caught fire in February and now has 43 points, second-best among the NHL’s rookies.

Sherman’s work at the trade deadline is also paying dividends, as newcomers Steve Downie and Jamie McGinn are making important contributions to the office, which helps ease the loss of star Matt Duchene (ankle).

SHARKS LOOKING LIKE MINNOWS

The rise of the Avalanche was mirrored by the fall of the San Jose Sharks, who found themselves in ninth place by the weekend after posting five consecutive losses.

Goaltender Antti Niemi is drawing fire for his work. He coughed up some big rebounds in the Sharks’ latest loss, although after the 3-0 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes the players say the offence is the big problem.

Sharks GM Doug Wilson tried to boost production by trading Jamie McGinn and two prospects to the Avs for Daniel Winnick and T.J. Galiardi but that is not working out. Nor did the off-season trade that saw forward Dany Heatley defenceman Brent Burns dispatched for forward Martin Havlat, who is hurt again.

“It seems to be a similar pattern here,” defenceman Dan Boyle told the San Jose Mercury after the Coyotes loss. “We had several Grade-A chances but didn’t put the puck away.”

TOEWS ALSO HOPES TO RETURN

Sidney Crosby isn’t the only concussed NHL star looking to get back on the ice this week. Chicago Blackhawks centre Jonathan Toews thinks he might be able to play on Tuesday against the St. Louis Blues after missing 10 games. The only problem is he had not been cleared for contact by Sunday.

“If you can shoot for a date like that, even if it's early, at least you feel like you're improving and making strides and you notice a difference,” Toews told reporters. “This past week I was hoping for Sunday and now I realize that it's not going to happen. I'll shoot for [Tuesday] but again, I'll take it day-by-day and we'll see what happens.”

Follow on Twitter: @dshoalts

 
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