PITTSBURGH -- For the Penguins, their 5-0 win over the New York Islanders on Monday night wasn't just about getting their captain, Sidney Crosby, back in the lineup for the first time since Jan. 5. Though, his four-point performance, including a goal on his third shift of the night was certainly a welcome sight and addition.
"The goals and assists were great, obviously," said Crosby. "But just being back out there, I can't really even describe it. It was exciting, I was anxious. Lot of different things going through my mind, but the main thing was just the joy of playing, and that's something I've missed for the past 10 months, so it was great we had a good game and got the win."
It was also about getting their team back to full strength for the first time since the end of the 2009-10 postseason.
Whether it's been Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal or any other combination of players, the Penguins have been dealing with a steady stream of injuries over the better part of the past two seasons, with most of the damage being done to their three franchise centers. This is a team that is built down the middle with a trio of pivots that, when all are healthy and in the lineup, is a matchup problem for just about any other team in the league to go up against.
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Combined, Crosby, Malkin and Staal take up over over $20 million of their salary cap space on a yearly basis, and are counted on to be their best players every night. Crosby and Malkin provide the scoring, Staal provides the shutdown center role that matches up against the other team's top line.
Monday's game represented just the third time since the start of last season, a total of 116 games, that all three players were in the lineup together. At various times over that stretch, they were without two of the three, if not all three for a small handful of games. Through it all, the Penguins managed to maintain a competitive squad, even if it wasn't always pretty, and even finished last season with 105 points in the regular season before exiting in the first-round of the playoffs -- minus Crosby and Malkin -- due in large part to a lack of goal-scoring.
And now, all three are back.
"It was certainly a different bench tonight," said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma. "Managing the ice time, getting players in different spots, than it has been in a long time. There are some players playing in different roles, or different minute slots for our team. Tonight it was maybe a different feel for me as a coach because of having 87, 71 and 11 there, and trying to fit players into the rotation and get them into the game, and get them into minutes. So it had a different feel for me. It's a feel I'd like to get used to a little bit more than just one game."
When asked what it was like to have all three players back in the lineup at the same time, defenseman Zbynek Michalek (who was also making a return to the lineup after missing the past month) said, "Yeah, it's been a while since we've had all three guys on the ice together, and when you have three centermen like that there aren't many teams in the league that can match up against that. Our team overall is pretty deep and if we can keep everybody healthy we can be a pretty good team."
Obviously, there were a ton of questions surrounding Crosby's return on Monday. Some were asking whether or not he could, despite missing the first 20 games of the season, work his way back into the scoring race, something that seemed like an unreasonable expectation (and it still kind of does).
When asked if he felt it could be done after the game, Bylsma simply chuckled for a moment and said, "I'm not going to make any prediction on that. We have 61 games left and his pace is pretty good right now."
Of course, the question of how much rust would be there after not playing in an NHL game for nearly 11 months was a sensible one, as would what might happen the first time he was hit during a game at full speed?
For the record, the first official hit in the scorebook belonged to defensemen Travis Hamonic.
It seemed unreasonable to think that he would able step right into the lineup and play at the same level he was playing at last season prior to suffering the concussion that ended his season. But he seemingly managed to do just that. He scored goals, he generated offense, leading the team in shots on goals, and he distributed the puck setting a pair of goals (including one for defensive-defenseman Brooks Orpik) and won most of his faceoffs.
"We want our centermen to go with speed and support and come from behind," said Bylsma when talking about Crosby's first goal. "But we haven't seen it quite like that in a long time. Just to see him get the puck right there I knew immediately their defense was in trouble. We've seen stuff like that before but it kind of played out in slow motion when he got the puck around the red line and had that burst of speed, and we've seen that backhand before. That was pretty special. I enjoyed his celebration."
At this point it's just one game back for Crosby, and expectations should remain within reason on an individual level. But on a team level? Against the Islanders, a squad that has been struggling mightily over the early part of the season, and elected to start a rookie goaltender making his first NHL start, we were reminded just how good the Penguins can be when all three of their top guys are in the lineup.
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