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Return of Sidney Crosby buoys Penguins heading into Game 7

By Jason Mackey

Nobody associated with the Penguins seemed to want to say much about Sidney Crosby's potential return for Game 7 of their first-round playoff series against the New York Rangers on Sunday at Madison Square Garden.

They didn't have to.

Crosby's ear-to-ear grin as he returned to practice Saturday at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex said plenty. So did the Penguins captain zipping around the ice, his legs clearly underneath him, and also some of the sublime stick work he showed off that has long been a signature staple of his game.

Officially, coach Mike Sullivan was non-committal on Crosby's status. He's day-to-day and will travel to New York, nothing more. Yet for Penguins fans near and far, there's arguably nothing more meaningful than Crosby returning to the Garden one last time this season.

His presence alone should inspire significant hope that the outcome of this wacky series — one loaded with borderline hits, blown leads, violent momentum swings, third-string goalies and Vezina Trophy candidates who have been harassed and pulled — is not a foregone conclusion.

"Sid's Sid," Jeff Carter said. "He's the leader on and off the ice, a calming presence in the room. See what happens."

What happened Saturday was certainly encouraging. During an optional skate, a setting where line rushes are almost never a thing, Crosby took them between Kasperi Kapanen and Rickard Rakell.

Could Sullivan be trying to recreate at least some semblance of game-like structure? Wouldn't be crazy.

Crosby also spent time parked in front of the crease, tipping point shots. He might've missed one. On another sequence, he cut in on goal, fired a wrister from the circle, spun and whacked in the rebound. It wasn't a burly defenseman burying him into the boards, but it wasn't nothing, either.

"He's in good spirits," Sullivan said of Crosby. "He's in a good place. He's doing his very best to get himself back and ready as quickly as he can. We'll see how that process goes."

Asked whether Crosby would be considered a game-time decision — often as far as Sullivan will go with injury updates, especially in the postseason — that produced a familiar brick wall.

"We'll take each day as it comes," Sullivan said to a question about Crosby, Rakell and Tristan Jarry. "I'm not going to speculate at this point. They're obviously on the ice. That's encouraging. They're making progress."

Crosby missed Game 6 and the second half of Game 5 after incurring a high, controversial hit from Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba. With Pittsburgh ahead, 2-0, at the time, New York then scored three goals in 2 minutes, 42 seconds to take control of the game.

Crosby appeared to sustain a head injury on the play. He took two more shifts before finally retiring to the dressing room for good that evening. Sullivan said Crosby skated on his own Friday morning and "was in a good place."

It sounds almost silly to say given all that Crosby has accomplished, but his presence, well, can't exactly be overstated.

For his offensive production, for one; Crosby was having an incredible postseason before he was injured, scoring two goals and totaling nine points in 4 1/2 games. Nobody NHL-wide was playing a better all-around game.

But it's also bigger than filling up the net or making plays for linemates Jake Guentzel (seven goals in six games) and Bryan Rust, who has yet to meet an elimination game that he doesn't like.

Crosby thrives in these moments. In seven career Game 7s, he has two goals and three assists, his point total exceeded only by longtime cohort Evgeni Malkin (six). Whether it's raising an already high compete level or finding the right way to motivate those around him, Crosby isn't the best captain in professional sports for nothing.

Reeling after losing the special teams battle Friday and continuing to blow two-goal leads with lousy second periods, Crosby's steady presence would help the Penguins eliminate this pesky part of their game. Meanwhile, his two-way prowess could really come in handy considering Rangers coach Gerard Gallant once again gets the last change.

In games Crosby has played, his line has largely kept New York's top trio of Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider and Frank Vatrano in check, controlling around 60% of the shot attempts and outscoring them, 4-0, during five-on-five play.

But in Game 6, with Malkin seeing more of Ryan Strome, Artemi Panarin and Andrew Kopp, that previous group hogged the puck and accounted for four goals, two at even-strength and two more on the power play.

"The Crosby line in the beginning, up until Sid got hurt, was dominant, regardless of who they were out against," Sullivan said. "So, they are an important line for us. Obviously we've had to make adjustments.

"We thought we had a solid effort [Friday] night. The five-on-five play from our standpoint was really strong. We've got to take the positives from that and continue to build on them."

It's a smart way of thinking about things. Might be the only way, really. And one that's helped a ton when your best worker returns to the job site.

"Any time Sid is on the ice, it's good for our team, it's good for our players, and it's good for our morale," Sullivan said. "That's certainly a boost for our guys."

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Dive Deeper:
Penguins' Sidney Crosby, Tristan Jarry out for Game 6 against Rangers
PITTSBURGH — The Penguins enter Game 6 against the New York Rangers without their captain Sidney Crosby, their No. 1…
As Sidney Crosby gets evaluated for upper-body injury, the spotlight again shines on Evgeni Malkin
NEW YORK — Back in November 2019, the fire alarm blared inside the visiting locker room at New Jersey’s Prudential…
Chris Kreider nets late winner as Rangers force Game 7 against Penguins
PITTSBURGH — Both Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad were finally major factors, freed from having to chase Sidney Crosby around…
Rangers eliminate Penguins on Artemi Panarin's overtime goal
NEW YORK – A series that began in Game 1 with a triple overtime marathon that tested both teams’ stamina…
One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
Penguins Jake Guentzel scored an absurd goal after kicking the puck to himself, but it probably shouldn’t have counted
Should this incredible goal from Jake Guentzel have stood as called?
Blues tame the Wild, take series with 5-1 win
ST. LOUIS — Nick Leddy opened the door. Ryan O’Reilly, Tyler Bozak and Vladimir Tarasenko then kicked it over.
Get all your news in one place