By Larry Brooks
New York Post
March 15, 2012
It has been a long time since the hockey world’s focus zeroed in on Madison Square Garden, maybe not since Wayne Gretzky’s Great Goodbye on April 13, 1999.
But that’s where the sport’s spotlight will be aimed tonight, when the Rangers and Penguins meet in a showdown that will feature a playoff atmosphere and the return of the world’s most celebrated hockey player.
The Rangers have the best record in the conference. The Penguins, with a nine-game winning streak, are second-best by six points with a game in hand at the top of the homestretch, but that’s the secondary storyline to Sidney Crosby’s dramatic return, as far as everyone who doesn’t have blueblood running through his or her veins is concerned.
No. 87 is back again, back after being sidelined since Dec. 5 with post-concussion symptoms, back after missing 101 of the Penguins’ last 109 regular-season games dating to Jan. 6, 2011, in the aftermath of a concussion he sustained by taking blows in successive matches from David Steckel and Victor Hedman.
Crosby will be the center of attention while centering Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy in this second 2011-12 comeback, the first becoming an eight-game, 12-point (2-10) cameo that commenced at home on Nov. 21 when the Islanders played the part of the Washington Generals and watched Sid The Kid unfurl a two-goal, two-assist bag of tricks before it ended following a rugged game against the Bruins.
There was a Nov. 29 match at the Garden in the mix, a 4-3 Rangers victory during which Crosby collected a pair of assists while getting 20:36 of ice on 23 shifts. The Penguins have outplayed the Rangers decisively in their past three meetings without Crosby, carrying the play each time while winning the last two.
If the Penguins win tonight, the road to the conference title likely will travel through Pittsburgh, where the Rangers will play their penultimate match of the season on April 5.
If the Blueshirts prevail over the Sidsanity that is sure to turn the Garden into a rock concert, the Rangers will take a huge step in securing the top spot in the conference they have led since Dec. 30.
That is their mission.
“I’m happy Sid is back because he’s a great person, and I’m happy for him that he’s feeling well enough to play,” said Rangers center Mike Rupp, who was Crosby’s teammate the previous two seasons. “But am I happy he’s coming back right now? Well, I know that it sets up a great challenge for us, and I know that we’ve responded to challenges all season.
“We haven’t been at our best against them the last couple of times we’ve played. For some reason we’ve been a little hesitant against them and they’ve taken it to us, so we have to change that by being aggressive against them the way we are against everybody else.”
Crosby isn’t everybody else. Even on a team with Evgeni Malkin (and Marc-Andre Fleury and Kris Letang, who might also return to the lineup tonight), Crosby isn’t anyone else.
The Rangers understand that, but they also understand that they are not at the Garden tonight as walk-on extras, but as conference leaders.
“Everyone’s eyes are going to be on that guy, but we can’t get caught up in the hype,” Marc Staal said. “He’s a great player, but nobody is going to back off.
“We’re going to be aggressive against him. We’re going to play our game.”