In case anyone failed to remember, Sidney Crosby issued notice that he is still—by far—the most valuable asset in the NHL.
The Penguins’ captain recorded two goals and two assists in his first game action since January 5 of this year, leading the Penguins to a 5-0 drubbing of the New York Islanders Monday in Pittsburgh.
“I don’t really have good words for it,” Dan Bylsma said. “That was special in a lot of ways.”
Crosby made his season debut in the Penguins’ 21st game this year after having missed a total of 61 regular-season games and seven playoff games with post-concussion symptoms.
“Just being back out there, I can’t really even describe it,” Crosby said.
Evgeni Malkin had a power play goal and an assist, Pascal Dupuis recorded three helpers and Marc-Andre Fleury earned his second shutout of the year and second against the Islanders, making 29 saves in the win.
Brooks Orpik and Steve Sullivan also added tallies for Pittsburgh, and Zbynek Michalek recorded an assist and plus-1 in his first game since October 22, a 4-1 win over New Jersey.
As for Sid’s big return, it appeared as though his considerable practice time thwarted whatever rust might have formed in the nearly eleven months since his last game.
“It was exciting, I was anxious, you know,” Crosby said. “A lot of different things going through my mind, but the main thing was just the joy of playing.”
Crosby was every bit as fast as during his torrid first half of the 2010-11 campaign. His passing was flawless, he showed no hesitation going into the corners and to the front of the net and he appeared to lose nothing of his league-best shot, scoring both goals from the backhand.
His line for the night: 2 goals, 2 assists, 8 shots, plus-3, 15:54 TOI, 14-7 (66.7 percent) on the faceoff dot and the game’s first star.
Crosby had a hand in four of the Penguins five goals on the night, but his presence was only part of the team’s success. Evgeni Malkin continued a bounceback campaign with a power play goal in the second period. He just missed on another power play goal early in the first, denting the post with a Crosby-fed slap shot from the right circle.
Malkin also earned the primary assist on Steve Sullivan’s goal, a beautiful cross-zone pass that found its way through traffic and landed square on Sullivan’s tape.
Pascal Dupuis, tied for second on the team with 17 points, added three assists alongside his normal center.
Marc-Andre Fleury also had himself a game, recording his 21st-career shutout. He made 29 saves on the night, including nine in a third period in which the Islanders had three consecutive power play chances.
The scoreless effort puts Fleury one shutout behind Tom Barrasso as the Penguins all-time leader in that category. His first blanking of the season came October 25 on Long Island.
Other than the obvious offensive contributions, Crosby’s presence finally balances and restores the deepest roster in hockey.
With his return, the Penguins automatically field the best second and third lines in the game. Malkin, Neal and Sullivan were among the league’s top first lines when they assumed the role through the first 20 games of the year. With Crosby’s return pushing them to second line duties, the Penguins essentially have two top lines, each capable of generating offense.
Matt Cooke, Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy give the Penguins a third line that is equally capable of scoring goals as it is shutting down an opponent’s best offensive unit.
As was demonstrated today, Crosby’s presence on the top line turns Kunitz and Dupuis into very legitimate scoring threats. As first line wingers, they may not share the same star power as a Patrick Marleau or Alex Ovechkin, but Crosby can turn each into a 50-point player, if not better.
Much was also made of having 87-71-11 healthy and productive for the first time in a long time. They only appeared in a handful of games together last year—Staal’s first game was the contest in which Crosby absorbed the Steckel hit, and Malkin went down not long afterward.
Their combined production on the night: 3 goals, 3 assists, 2 power play points, 14 shots, plus-4 rating. That kind of production from the three-center model is much of what earned the Penguins a Stanley Cup in 2009.
More than individual point scoring, though, is the matchup advantage Bylsma now has in any contest.
The Islanders may not represent the most stout opposition in the game, but the matchups Dan Bylsma was able to exploit were obvious. He can at any time launch a legitimate scoring line, sometimes two consecutively. Every player on the team is defensively responsible, and the defense has no great weakness when healthy.
With Crosby back to put everything in its place, the Penguins can create matchup challenges for any opponent.
All of this fails to mention a complete defensive corps. At the height of their powers (and good health) last season, the Penguins were second overall in goals against. Michalek’s return puts everyone back into a familiar pairing.
Orpik-Letang and Martin-Michalek played as pairs tonight, giving the Penguins their designed top-four for the first time in almost a month. Orpik (8 games) and Michalek (10 games) each missed considerable parts of the young season.
Even third pairing of Niskanen-Engelland also impressed. Each of those players has shown marked improvement in the first quarter of the season.
Up and down the lineup, the Penguins are perhaps the deepest team in the league, and certainly represent the deepest roster of the Crosby era.
If this article gushes over the Penguins (and it does), its because they might for the first time have a roster that fully realizes the talent of its stars, the fully-implemented systems of its coaches and the cap-navigating genius of its front office.
James was a Penguins contributor at THW and SB Nation Pensburgh and owns the Pittsburgh sports blog Slew Footers.