The challenge for the NHL’s pre-eminent player as he made his return to the game was normalcy.
Considering the venue, the opponent and the overflow media contingent chronicling his every utterance, there was nothing typical about Sidney Crosby’s return.
"I think if anything you’re excited to get back out there and try to use that adrenaline to play well. But this is a big game, and I think if anything try to make it as normal as possible," Crosby said after the Penguins’ early skate at Madison Square Garden Thursday morning.
Thursday’s marquee match is Crosby’s second comeback from post-concussion symptoms. He recorded four points (two goals and two assists) against the Islanders on Nov. 21.
"I’m not trying to compare one to the other, to be honest. I was really happy, and that was an emotional game and really fun when I look back on it," Crosby said. "But I didn’t go into that game trying to get four points. And I have the same mentality tonight.”
Crosby’s ice time will range between “13 to 16” minutes as he centers Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. Crosby will also play the right point on the power play, reiterated Bylsma when he met with reporters outside of the visitors’ dressing room.
Bylsma’s logic in placing Crosby on the point is that it adds his vision to a unit that has Evgeni Malkin, tied for the league lead in points and second in goals, on the half boards while James Neal screens goaltenders.
"The power play goes through the half wall for the most part," Bylsma said. "It allows Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby to [have the power play] go through them."
Crosby is not the only star returning to the Penguins lineup. Defenseman Kris Letang will dress for his first game since suffering a concussion on Feb. 29 against the Dallas Stars. The concussion against Dallas was the second he suffered this season. Letang has only played in 40 games this year.
"I’m back in," Letang said Thursday morning.
The Penguins enter the game having won nine in a row without Crosby and Letang. The defenseman acknowledged that it could be a task fitting both back into the lineup, but dispelled any notion there would be an extended gestation period for the team with the in-house personnel additions.
"We just want to ease back in. We’re going to play the same way we always play, so we’ll go from there," Letang said. "I don’t think we’re going to change that much."
Pittsburgh’s winning streak sliced the Rangers’ divisional and conference lead to six points (95-89). The teams have split the first four games of the regular season series. They play once more this season in Pittsburgh on April 5.
"This game is a lot more than about Sidney Crosby’s comeback game," Bylsma said. "We know if we want to catch the Rangers [for] first in our division, hopefully first in the conference, we have to beat them. We have to beat them [in the] two games.
"I don’t think we can get one point and realistically think we have a chance to [catch] them. That’s what this game is for us."
Follow Rangers beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.
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