It's great to be a Pens fan right now. Last night the Penguins defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals in a thrilling double-overtime game where James Neal scored on a fluky goal to give Pittsburgh the 3-1 edge heading back home.
It's important to note that they won this game on the road without Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz and Matt Cooke. All four of these players were essential pieces in the 2009 Stanley Cup run and two of those four are absolutely elite.
So how does Pittsburgh keep winning? How are they going to, with a high probability, advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals for the fourth consecutive year?
There are several answers to this question. Marc-Andre Fleury has been stellar and Dan Bylsma has been sensational and is most likely a Jack Adams nominee. But team chemistry has a lot to do with the team's success, too.
So would a return from Crosby deter team chemistry?
Currently the Penguins first line is composed of Chris Kunitz, Jordan Staal and Tyler Kennedy. Kunitz has been successful on this line, but his chemistry with Crosby is stronger and he will probably be reunited with him.
The Penguins also brought in James Neal from Dallas for one reason: to be Sid's winger. So one can imagine the first line becoming Kunitz-Crosby-Neal. There should be no problems here because Crosby is a transcendent athlete, who makes everyone better, it doesn't matter who it is. But what about the other lines?
Will we see the return of the Cooke-Staal-Kennedy line? They've been together for many years and have a lot of experience playing with each other. Kennedy has also been playing unbelievably with Staal as his center this season. Adding Cooke's physicality to this line makes it very tough to play against.
Cooke's return will also shake up the lineup. His return to the lineup most likely means that Chris Conner will not play anymore. Crosby's return probably makes Mark Letestu, who has struggled to show up on the score sheet, the odd man out.
So the return of Crosby and Cooke means three lines get shaken up. Here are the projected lines:
At least the fourth line stays the same. This line has provided a lot of energy for the Penguins in this year's playoffs. Aaron Asham has three goals and it's apparent from his success that the players on the line enjoy playing with each other.
One major concern is the Dupuis-Talbot-Kovalev line. Kovalev's ego might not sit well with playing on the third line, but most importantly, will the line click? Dupuis has struggled and Kovalev is replacing the very quick Chris Conner.
Certainly we can see Kovalev being on the second line with Staal and Cooke so that he is surrounded with better playmakers. Kennedy has been so hot he wouldn't mind playing with Talbot and Dupuis. The line will also generate a lot of speed.
It's obvious there are many options, but one thing is for certain: Crosby's return shakes up the team a bit. One wants to say "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," but Crosby's return improves the team dramatically. The team hasn't been the same offensively since his injury and his pairing with Neal and Kunitz could make the Penguins first line one of the most dominant in the league. However, the Penguins have relied on guys like Tyler Kennedy and Alex Kovalev a lot this year and they seem to be perfectly content on the lines they are playing on now. It will be interesting to see if their placement on new lines will affect their game play.
Bylsma may try to rotate lines throughout Crosby's first few games to see what works and what doesn't. But can he afford to do that in the playoffs with so little time to catch up if they fall behind in an important series?
The Penguins just hope that Crosby's offensive presence will be so dominating that they won't even have to worry about their other lines scoring.