Sidney Crosby returned to the game of hockey Monday night in Pittsburgh and put on an amazing individual performance.
Two goals. Two assists. No rust, no hesitation, and no indication that the Penguins' captain had missed nearly eleven months with one of the most serious injuries imaginable.
“I don’t really have good words for it,” Dan Bylsma said. “That was special in a lot of ways.”
As good as Crosby was, returning him to his rightful place in the lineup was just the final, triumphant step in what will be the biggest story to emerge from Monday night's showing at Consol Energy Center.
Finally, Penguins general manager Ray Shero has his team.
To be sure, it wasn't just The Crosby Show Monday. Pittsburgh's defense responded to two bad losses and penalty kill failures with five kills and a Marc-Andre Fleury shutout.
Evgeni Malkin scored a power-play goal to continue his good start to the season (1.14 PPG), and eight Penguins skaters not named Crosby registered at least a point.
What must worry the rest of the league now is that Crosby is not the favorite to win the Stanley Cup—the Pittsburgh Penguins are.
In some circles, they were the favorites before last night's game.
In what is now the third season since Pittsburgh's championship campaign in 2008-09, the Penguins are, for the first time, healthy and whole.
That means the shortcomings and injuries that plagued the teams that lost in the playoffs to Montreal and Tampa Bay may finally be forgotten.
Quality wingers? The Penguins boast five who have the potential to crack 20 goals and 50 points. Pascal Dupuis (.80 PPG) and James Neal (1.00 PPG) are on pace for career seasons.
Blueliners? The Penguins have two shutdown defensemen in Brooks Orpik and Zbynek Michalek, a legitimate Norris candidate in Kris Letang, and no weaknesses to speak of in their third pairing.
Pittsburgh's penalty kill finished first overall last season and is among the top three this year.
Goaltending? Fleury has posted two shutouts, is second in the league with 11 wins, and his .930 save percentage and 1.86 goals-against average are both top ten numbers in the NHL.
Organizational depth? Pittsburgh lost 350 man-games to injury last season—over 120 of which from their top three centers—and finished with the second-most points in franchise history.
Statistical tiebreakers prevented them from winning their second Atlantic Division title.
Coaching? Jack Adams should posthumously receive the Dan Bylsma Award.
The last time the Penguins had everyone healthy was the 2009 playoffs. Crosby and Malkin were scoring at unstoppable clips with Rob Scuderi and Orpik anchoring the blue line.
Marc-Andre Fleury was stopping everything thrown his way and the team had nary an injury to speak of.
Since then, bad luck and worse timing have kept the Penguins from coming together in the same way.
Malkin and Fleury had subpar seasons in 2009-10, while the defense floundered after failing to replace the defected Scuderi and Hal Gill.
Last year, Crosby, Malkin and Jordan Staal combined to miss 122 games—35 percent of the team's total 350 man-games lost.
For the first 20 games this season, another rash of injuries threatened to send the team sideways as Orpik, Zbynek Michalek, Crosby, Malkin and Ben Lovejoy have all missed significant time.
On Monday, for at least one game, Penguins fans finally saw the lineup as Shero envisioned it.
The New York Islanders are no contenders, to be sure, but name a team that won't have significant matchup problems against this healthy Pittsburgh roster.
The Crosby and Malkin lines are two legitimate top lines. Until Crosby's return, the Malkin line—as it was constructed last night—was the team's top line, and one of the best in the game.
Now, there are two of them.
The Staal line is back together, as well. The longest-tenured group on the club, they'll still put pressure on every opponent's top line, but they're now a third legitimate scoring line.
Matt Cooke is refocused and playing the best pure hockey of his Penguins career. Tyler Kennedy posted 20 goals last season, and Staal is currently on pace for 42 goals and 68 points.
Coach Bylsma, when prompted Tuesday, refrained from diminishing Staal's role as, now, the third center.
"I don't call him a third-line center," Bylsma said.
At the risk of heaping more lofty adjectives on the hyperbole mountain that is last night's game, the lineup fans saw was Pittsburgh's best-constructed weapon in the battle for another Stanley Cup.
Fans can't take for granted that such a lineup will exist forever.
Shero structured a team that will have the opportunity to, at least, aggressively pursue all its stars as they become eligible for free agency, but that's no guarantee they'll all stay.
After this year, there's just one more season in which the presently-constructed Penguins core will be together.
Staal and Crosby are eligible for free agency status in 2013. Malkin, Kris Letang and Orpik have expiring deals in 2014. Fleury, Paul Martin and Michalek become FA eligible in 2015.
In short, the Penguins' championship window—which was temporarily closed last season because of injuries to star players—remains mostly open for this season and next.
After that, Shero will again have to work his magic to keep the team together and contending.
That's why the Islanders game was so special. The Penguins finally, finally, finally took the ice as a whole unit. No question marks. No weaknesses. No injuries.
Everything worked as it was meant to work. The results were evident.
Fans will remember Monday's game for Crosby's four points, for the shutout win and for the Mario-mandated "Welcome Back Sid" placards.
But the highlight of Monday's game wasn't watching Sidney Crosby take the ice. It was watching the Penguins take the ice, as a whole, for the first time in a long time.
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