By Dejan Kovacevic, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Wednesday, March 7, 2012
It's rare to sculpt extra characters in an individual monument, but this will work magnificently.
If we're lucky, someday the Penguins will carve one for Sidney Crosby, too. And his supporting cast won't be a conditioning coach and a battery of concussion experts.
The captain took another sizable stride toward that end Tuesday, as the hockey world heard around noon, by being cleared for contact in practices. He took a couple of bumps from teammates in a light optional at Consol, he'll take a few more Wednesday, and he wasn't ruling out a return as soon as Sunday.
It probably won't be that quick, from what I heard, but who's complaining, right?
"I don't want to get ahead of anything, but it's a good step," Crosby said, still gasping a bit after the latest in a series of breathless workouts. "Hopefully, I can keep the momentum and get out there soon. That's what I'm shooting for."
It's great news, an applause line no more how often it's heard.
But let's make this clear, too: Crosby's return isn't optional if the Penguins expect to raise the Stanley Cup.
It's an absolute must.
Yes, somehow, against the odds, it's been another terrific run for this team without Crosby and other key contributors. They'll go for their 40th win — and seventh in a row — Wednesday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Evgeni Malkin has pulled off the impossible in replacing the best player in the world with the best player in the world. Marc-Andre Fleury has been so good that we're taking his nightly gems for granted. And Dan Bylsma and his staff, as was the case last year, have done a fine job of maintaining the focus.
But playoffs are unkind to teams with glaring shortcomings, and these Penguins, to me, look eminently vulnerable without Crosby.
The "Firing Line" of Malkin, James Neal and Chris Kunitz has gotten some support from other lines, notably from a burgeoning Jordan Staal. But those three still generate the bulk of the offense and, in the playoffs, they'd face checking lines unlike anything they're seeing now if there's no solid secondary threat. That might even come in the form of a shadow aimed solely at Malkin, as the Sabres tried last month in Buffalo with Paul Gaustad.
Crosby changes that.
Moreover, the great unspoken over the past month is that Neal, while still highly visible, has just three goals in the past 16 games. It's hardly a fluke, either. He has 84 career goals before the All-Star break, 19 after. And you might recall his two goals in two months after arriving last season.
Crosby can change that, too, if his return peels away any pressure that might be piling up on Neal.
Overall, Crosby's return transforms a weakness to a towering strength, especially if Bylsma and staff assemble the second line suggested in this space last week with Staal shifted to Crosby's left wing and Pascal Dupuis flanking his right. Just like that, all those clear-cut matchups become a muddle.
Think about it: Is any opposing coach bold enough to assign his checkers to someone other than Crosby?
Or confident enough in his job security?
No one with the Penguins is forecasting how lines might look after Crosby's return, but you're probably free to discern that Crosby has no interest in poaching from the Malkin trio based on his reply to my question about that unit's effectiveness: "They've been unbelievable. When you look at their line, they really do have a perfect mix of guys there to create stuff every shift. They really carry the load."
It also would help, obviously, to have Kris Letang back, and there was encouraging word on his concussion front Tuesday with Bylsma disclosing that he's already doing light exercises.
That's terrific, too, but I wouldn't place Letang's return in the same paramount category as Crosby's. The Penguins' ability to defend as a team is predicated far more on the system than any individual, even a star. And Crosby's presence will more than make up for any offense lost.
Crosby changes everything.
And that should have the rest of the NHL petrified.