Sidney Crosby: Will the Pittsburgh Penguins Pass the New York Rangers?

Cat ZambitoContributor IMarch 15, 2012

In my opinion, the answer is the Penguins will not.

Ever since it was announced that Sidney Crosby was cleared for contact back on March 6, the NHL world has been anxiously awaiting his return.

It has been getting more than its fair share of media attention lately, because so many thought Crosby's season, at the very least, was over.

As it turns out, Sid the Kid is timing his monumental comeback for the Pittsburgh Penguins matchup against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden Thursday night, adding to the intensity of the situation.

The Penguins have been on a frenzy lately, winning nine straight games and narrowing in on the Eastern Conference top spot the Rangers have held since December 27. 

On the other hand, the Rangers have been struggling lately to find their earlier season glory, having endured their first three-game regulation losing streak this season going into Sunday night's game against the New York Islanders.

With a 4-3 win in overtime, the Rangers came out of their losing slump and gave the home team fans much to cheer about.

The Blueshirts then played another stellar game at home against the Carolina Hurricanes Tuesday night, tallying their second-straight win and widening their lead on the Penguins to six points.

This renewed confidence of back-to-back wins for the Rangers is one of the main reasons why I believe that the Penguins don't stand a chance at passing them in the standings.

Even with key players such as captain Ryan Callahan and fireplug Michael Del Zotto out of the lineup, the Rangers have found a way to rally back.

When their starting goaltender Henrik Lundqvist suddenly came down with the flu Tuesday, backup goaltender Martin Biron came out strong and helped his team to a big win.

Having the support of their fans is also a contributing factor to their recent reclaimed success as they continue on their seven-game homestand.

That and the fact that the Rangers' top line of Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik and Carl Hagelin have been phenomenal lately. In Tuesday's game, that line alone scored all four goals, raking in nine points.

Lundqvist is back in net against the Penguins Thursday night and, according to WFAN interview Wednesday morning, it seems hopeful that captain Cally will return as well. 

The Rangers know how pivotal it is for them to win Thursday's game, because at this juncture of the season every point counts.

This is not to say that the Penguins won't be hungry for the win—I just believe the Rangers will shut them down.

Similar to the New York Knicks playing better with Carmelo Anthony out of the lineup, the Penguins have been playing great hockey without the help of their captain and readjusting Crosby back into the lineup may not be as easy as it looks.

Lately, things are going pretty well with the Penguins and their top two lines and they would be foolish to tamper with that.

Alternate captain Evgeni Malkin has really stepped it up in Crosby's absence. He is tied for first in the league with Tampa Bay Lightning's Steven Stamkos for points with 84 and is second in the league to Stamkos with 38 goals thus far this season.

Having grown accustomed to being head honcho for the Penguins with Crosby out, It will be interesting to see how Malkin's play is affected with his return.

That being said, it's believed Crosby will be playing on the third line alongside Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy (as has been the case in practice). Crosby also has been playing the point during the power-play—a change of scenery for him.

All things considered, having Crosby back in the lineup may not be that smooth of a transition, (as seems to be the case with most players returning from concussions or concussion-like symptoms).

Take the Rangers defenseman Marc Staal for example. 

Staal took quite some time to re-adjust playing in the NHL. At this point, some may argue he still isn't at his pre-concussion level.

Unlike Staal, however, Crosby was out twice for his condition, so you can be sure that Penguins coach Dan Bylsma will have him take it very easy this time around.

Crosby is expected to play about 14-15 minutes Thursday night and, going forward, will be eased very slowly into their remaining 14 regular-season games.

All of these factors will contribute to some major readjusting in the Penguins' locker room and lineup and that should not be overlooked as a deterrent towards their race to beat the Rangers.

We can expect an intense game for sure Thursday night (as is always the case with these two Atlantic Division rival teams), but the Rangers have more to prove by holding on to their top spot  than the Penguins do with Sid the Kid's return.