Potent Pens await Crosby's return

PITTSBURGH -- It is a mark of the evolution of this Pittsburgh Penguins team that Sidney Crosby's status for the team's playoff opener Wednesday remains uncertain and widespread angst has not gripped the region.

Oh, there were reporters gathered at Crosby's dressing room stall when the team finished practice Monday, as there always are. But on this day, it was more a function of routine than urgency.

Crosby, again wearing a protective shield on his helmet during practice as he continues to recover from a broken jaw sustained a month ago, said he felt good enough to play when the Pens entertain the upstart New York Islanders in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series but that, ultimately, he needs a final blessing from doctors.

He said he has no expectations one way or another heading into Tuesday's appointment.

"Try not to have any," he said. "Just going for an appointment and see what happens. I don't have any control over it, so there's no point in getting too worked up about it."

Crosby was the runaway leading scorer in the league when he was injured by a deflected shot in a game against the Islanders. Since then, the Pens not only continued to push forward, they thrived in locking down the top seed in the East as coach Dan Bylsma introduced a quartet of new faces into a lineup that was at various times lacking Crosby, defensemen Kris Letang and Paul Martin and forwards James Neal and Evgeni Malkin.

Over that period of time, former Dallas Stars captain Brenden Morrow and former Calgary Flames captain Jarome Iginla, along with defenseman Douglas Murray and forward Jussi Jokinen, jumped into the mix with the team not missing a beat.

With the Pens on the verge of returning to full health -- Crosby remains the missing piece, and the sense is that he is close -- there is a temptation to think not just in terms of this first-round series but of the Pens' place in the pantheon of great playoff teams.

And given all the pieces at Bylsma's disposal, it's hard not to project the Pens to a conference final, to a Stanley Cup final and, of course, to another championship after a series of playoff disappointments since the Pens' 2009 Cup win.

But if that is the tendency outside the bubble -- to project, to imagine what might be given the team's talent -- Iginla said Monday one of the things that has impressed him about the Pens is that there is never any discussion about anything other than the next day's practice or the next day's game.

No doubt part of that is a function of what happened last spring, when in spite of high expectations and the return of Crosby to full health after his long battle with concussion-related symptoms, the Pens flamed out in the first round against the Philadelphia Flyers.

"We know that anything can happen, like you said, from last year, teams playing good coming into the playoffs, you have a lot of confidence, anything can happen," Martin told ESPN.com on Monday. "For us to prepare and go at it one game at a time is important. We have to look at it like that, especially after last year."

Bylsma said the Pens long ago dealt with the Flyers series; why things happened the way they did, how it unfolded. But that series has no bearing on the team's preparation now -- nor should it.

Still, it was a humbling process, Martin acknowledged.

"Frustrating when you have a good team and you believe in yourselves and you know deep down that you don't think that you should be out that early," he said. "It was obviously, I think, a really emotional series and we got caught up in that, and that takes a toll on you, the back and forth instead of just keeping an even keel and keep working. I think we've learned our lesson.

"I think with the depth that we have … and the character that we added and the way that they've been playing will be good for us."

Others agree. One Eastern Conference scout told ESPN.com that a year ago the standard plan against the Pens was to try to get them off their game. It worked to a tee for the Flyers.

With the additions of Morrow, Iginla and Murray, that doesn't seem like it's going to happen this time around, the scout said.

Longtime NHLer Keith Jones, now a national analyst, said the players added have respect around the NHL and in the Pens' dressing room, as well.

"They'll know when to get revved up and when to calm down," Jones told ESPN.com. "That's what [the Pens] missed last year."

The fact there's no Philadelphia looming, Jones said, also creates a different dynamic as the tournament begins.

"I just don't see how anybody stops them," Jones said. "This is especially true in the Eastern Conference. They got it. They've got what it takes."

Funny how that remains the sentiment even if a player like Crosby -- the best player in the world in many people's books -- isn't part of the proceedings at least from the get-go.

"Hopefully it doesn't have to happen," that the playoffs begin without him, Crosby said. "But I think we've proven in a number of situations that no matter who's out, we're capable of playing good hockey and beating good teams."