Sidney Crosby is about to become the NHL's most-watched No. 3 line centre.
The Pittsburgh Penguins star will end his second extended concussion-related layoff Thursday to play against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. The team believes he's ready to make even more of an impact than he did during his first comeback in November.
“He feels better than last time and knows what to expect this time,” general manager Ray Shero said Tuesday.
Crosby's return alone would make Thursday a date to circle.
But the Penguins also have won nine in a row without the former NHL MVP and scoring champion, and they've closed a once-formidable 10-point gap behind the Rangers to four points in the race for the Eastern Conference's top playoff spot.
Crosby announced following the Penguins' off-day practice Tuesday at their suburban practice rink that he's ready to go. After being cleared for contact last week, Crosby weighed whether to return Sunday against the Boston Bruins, only to decide he hadn't had enough contact to play in a game so late in the regular season.
“I feel good,” Crosby said. “The plan is to play Thursday.”
Crosby got plenty of work in practice Tuesday, skating on the Penguins' third line with Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy and also playing the point on the power play.
“It's a different spot for me. I played there in junior so it's been a few years since I've been back there,” he said of his power play spot. “I like it. I'm able to see a lot of the ice and have Geno (Evgeni Malkin) with the big shot on the side wall. My job is to distribute the puck amongst everyone. When he's shooting the puck like that, just give it to him in that area.”
For now, coach Dan Bylsma plans to keep intact his productive top two lines of Chris Kunitz-Evgeni Malkin-James Neal and Steve Sullivan-Jordan Staal-Pascal Dupuis.
The Malkin line produced three goals during a 5-2 win over the Bruins on Sunday, giving Malkin the league scoring lead with 84 points.
“I'm pretty sure I'll end up with them (Cooke and Kennedy),” Crosby said. “I wouldn't see coach putting me with a different pairing after missing this much time. I'm sure he's trying to get guys used to playing with one another. In any game, different line combinations are common, but for the most part that's who I'll be with.”
This is the second comeback of Crosby's second injury-shortened season in a row. He missed the first 20 games before scoring two goals during a four-point night against the Islanders on Nov. 21 — a dazzling return for a player who had been out for nearly 11 months.
“That game was overwhelming,” Crosby said.
Crosby had two goals and 10 assists in eight games before the concussion-like symptoms returned following a Dec. 5 game against the Bruins. He announced two days later he wouldn't play against the Flyers on Dec. 8, and he has not played since.
During a layoff that saw multiple visits to specialists other than those who have been treating him in Pittsburgh, Crosby was diagnosed with a soft tissue injury in the top two vertebrae in his neck. Crosby believes this diagnosis, and the subsequent treatment, helped get him back on the ice again.
The concussion issues have left the NHL without its marquee player for all but eight games in the last 15 months.
But the Penguins remained confident he would be ready to play again this season. Shero met with his star player before the Feb. 27 trade deadline and decided against placing him on the long-term injured list — which would have made him ineligible until the playoffs and freed up salary cap space to facilitate a trade — and was left feeling confident enough to stand pat.
“I just wanted to hear what he said,” Shero explained. “He was like, ‘I'm not doing all this, not working this hard not to come back, you know?' I'm like, ‘yeah, okay, I got you.’
“He wants to play and he's worked really hard to get to this point again and come back and play. He said he's a hockey player and I have great respect for that.”
Crosby was enjoying the best season of his already exceptional career in 2010-11, with 32 goals and 66 points in 41 games, until hard hits in successive games Jan. 1 and 5, 2011, sidelined him for the rest of the season.
Without Crosby, the Penguins had a 106-point season but were eliminated by Tampa Bay in the first round of the playoffs.
Crosby would have as many as 14 regular-season games remaining before the playoffs if he gets through the rest of the schedule without any further problems. The Penguins play three games in four nights starting Thursday.
“We'll make sure I get better every game, but I'll pace myself a bit with the schedule,” Crosby said.