At a glance: The Garden will be abuzz Thursday, and not just because the Eastern Conference-leading Rangers bring a two-game winning streak into the match. New York will host the surging Penguins in Sidney Crosby’s long-awaited (second) return. The superstar center hasn’t played since December 5 and has been limited to only eight games over the last 14 months because of post-concussion symptoms. And if the Penguins were a dangerous team before – they have rattled off a remarkable nine straight – they are downright frightening with the addition of Crosby and defenseman Kris Letang to their already-stacked lineup.
Rangers vs. Crosby: The Rangers have faced Crosby only once this season, but fared well against the 24-year-old force. New York limited him to two assists in the team’s 4-3 win over the Penguins November 29. What’s their game plan against him tonight? Just focus on their own game. Said top-pair defenseman Ryan McDonagh: “When we’re defending well, we’re tough to play against.”
No Lundqvist: The Penguins get back their best player tonight, but the Rangers will be missing theirs. Henrik Lundqvist, who missed Tuesday’s game with the flu, will not play. The 30-year-old netminder said he’s not quite game-ready after missing three days with illness. Backup Martin Biron will make his second straight start. The Rangers will also be without captain Ryan Callahan (foot) and defenseman Michael Del Zotto (hip).
Second coming: Hard to imagine a comeback that can top Crosby’s first, when he delivered a transcendent two-goal four-point performance against the Islanders and rookie goaltender Anders Nilsson. Crosby played in only seven games after his triumphant return, however, before he was sidelined again in December with “concussion-like symptoms.” According to Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, he will play on a line with Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy and likely be limited to 13-16 minutes.
Atlantic showdown: The Rangers have enjoyed a comfortable lead in the Eastern Conference and Atlantic Division standings for most of the season, but that has narrowed of late. With the Penguins gaining momentum heading into the last four weeks of the season, they have pulled within six points of the 44-18-7 Rangers with one game in hand. Tonight is the fifth of six games between the two teams this season, the third and final at Madison Square Garden.
Team to beat: Are the Penguins the team to beat? Apparently, even Rangers general manager Glen Sather thinks so. Sather told ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun at the GM meetings in Boca Raton, FL Wednesday that Pittsburgh is the “best team in the league,” with Crosby back. Bylsma said Sather’s remarks were “kind words,” but that his team can’t afford to give hem much by way of deference if they want to catch them in the division standings. “We can’t even give them one point, realistically, if we want to get them.”