March of the Pens.

The sport of hockey received good news this week – Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, heralded by some as the greatest player in the world, will return to the ice Thursday (3/15) against the New York Rangers. While the Rangers probably aren’t too happy (currently sitting in first in the Eastern Conference with 95 points), the Kid is the NHL’s golden boy – a hard worker, a Stanley Cup winner, a gold medal winner – and an overall good guy.

Crosby was cleared for contact last week after missing the last 40 games due to a soft-tissue neck injury (that was misdiagnosed as a concussion) at the beginning of December 2011. He had made his first “return” to the ice on November 21, 2011 (following a real concussion suffered in January 2011 that kept him off the ice for 61 straight games) with a four point performance against the visiting New York Islanders. But his return was short-lived – after only eight games, Crosby sustained the neck injury (in a Dec. 5 game against the Boston Bruins) that has kept him benched until now.

Despite not having Crosby in the line-up, the Pens have been streaking after the Rangers, having won nine straight coming into Thursday’s game at MSG (totaling 89 points, with a game in hand). In Crosby’s absence, Evgeni Malkin, who can be considered a phenom in his own right, has stepped up big time (now tied for league-leading points with Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos at 84). If you need more proof, look at this end-to-end Malkin score from game two of the current streak:

The Penguins’ top line is enjoying undeniable chemistry (most notably between Malkin, Chris Kunitz and James Neal, who is currently 14th in points with 65), and so is the power play unit (ranked 7th in the NHL at 19.7 percent). With Crosby’s return, the goal is to bolster the squad, avoid “fixing what isn’t broken,” and let Crosby ease back into things (coach Dan Bylsma said Crosby will likely play around 15 minutes against the Rangers). Crosby practiced and will likely play on a line with Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy, and he will work as the point on the power play unit. Malkin has been playing (and scoring at will) from Crosby’s old spot on the PP unit, and that isn’t going to be tampered with.

“My job is to distribute the puck amongst everyone. When [Malkin’s] shooting the puck like that, just give it to him in that area,” said Crosby.

Without a doubt, the clash of two of the Eastern Conference’s best teams – along with Crosby’s return – will create a certain electricity at the Garden tomorrow night. Oh, and I’ll be there to see how it goes.

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