The long-awaited return of Sidney Crosby has been set for Thursday. That just so happens to be the same night Pittsburgh faces the team it's trying to chase down for the No. 1 seed in the East.
The Penguins visit New York on Thursday to take on the Rangers. Pittsburgh has pulled within four points of New York and will enter that game riding a nine-game win streak.
The Rangers, meanwhile, have hit a bit of a lull after rolling through most of the season. They're just 3-3-1 in March, with three straight losses before beating the rival Islanders on Sunday, but they needed a goal in the closing seconds of overtime to do that.
New York's stretch of mediocrity actually dates back into last month, with the Rangers just 6-5-2 in their last 13 games. That's still less than half as long as Boston's two-month long malaise that sees the Bruins at 12-14-2 since Jan. 12.
Those struggles have knocked the Bruins out of the race for the top spot, as they now trail the Rangers by 10 points with just 14 games left in the regular season. The Rangers could also keep Pittsburgh at bay with a win Tuesday night over Carolina and a victory Thursday in the head-to-head showdown, but that task has suddenly become a little more difficult with the return of Crosby.
Sure, it's possible that Crosby will take some time to get back to top form. Then again, he did put up two goals and four points in his first game back from his previous concussion earlier this season. That came after a layoff of more than 10 months. This time, he's returning after an absence of just over three months.
The concern will be whether Crosby can stay in the lineup for the rest of the season and through the playoffs. He lasted just eight games in his last comeback, and most concerning is the fact that it was not one notable huge hit that knocked him out again. The cumulative effects of a collision with teammate Chris Kunitz and a rather innocuous looking run-in with David Krejci put Crosby back on the shelf after a Dec. 5 clash with the Bruins.
Now Crosby will have to face an even bigger challenge. The intensity — and the physical play — will be ratcheted up in the stretch run and postseason, though Crosby will be eased back into action a bit.
"I probably feel a little bit better, just knowing what to expect," Crosby told reporters on Tuesday, comparing this comeback to his November return. "I think it's just easier going through it this time. I know what to expect. That first game was pretty overwhelming. It was a lot of fun, but that being said, I think I'll take it more in stride this time and make sure I'm getting better every game, but also try to pace myself a bit."
He's slated to open Thursday on the third line with Tyler Kennedy (6-16-22 totals) and Matt Cooke (12-15-27). Those may not be the most prolific linemates in the league, but they do reduce the expectations placed on Crosby a little. And certainly playing with Cooke instead of against him eliminates one of the biggest risks of concussions in the league.
If Crosby can come anywhere near his pre-injury form and stay healthy for the rest of the year, the Penguins have just made an addition that blows away anything that any team did at the trade deadline. Adding Crosby, the top player in the league since the lockout, to the mix with Evgeni Malkin (NHL-best 38-46-84 totals), who is arguably the top player in the NHL this season, seems almost unfair.
Add to it Jordan Staal, a standout netminder in Marc-Andre Fleury and a defense that should get Kris Letang back from concussion symptoms soon as well, and it adds up to a dramatic shift in power among the Eastern Conference elite. This Pittsburgh team also knows what it takes to win, with the core of its 2009 Cup-winning roster still intact.
The Bruins already knew they would face a mighty challenge getting out of the East with the Rangers blocking the way, having already beaten Boston all three times the Original Six rivals have met this year. Now the Bruins have to worry about contending with a full-strength Pittsburgh squad.
The Penguins have beaten Boston the last two times they met as well, both times without Crosby in the lineup. The Bruins' only victory over Pittsburgh this year actually came in Crosby's final game, so maybe having him back isn't completely bad news.
But the Bruins, and the rest of the East, know the real score. Getting past Pittsburgh just got tougher.
Boston's final week of the regular season also just got more interesting. They go to Madison Square Garden to face the Rangers, return home to take on Pittsburgh, then travel to Ottawa for a game that might determine the Northeast Division title and the No. 2 seed in the East.
And that's all before the real action starts in the playoffs.