NEW YORK, N.Y. — It took only 16 seconds for the first "Crosby Sucks" chant to reverberate around Madison Square Garden on Thursday night, a signal that Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby's return to the NHL was official.
After that warm New York welcome, Crosby had to wait 1:44 to hop over the boards for the first time in over three months, and less than three minutes into the game to celebrate the first Penguins goal during their 5-2 victory over the New York Rangers for their 10th straight win.
The Roman Colosseum that was MSG Thursday night was out for blood, or at least to see one of their gladiators to lay a big hit on the 24-year old superstar. They've been tortured too many times by Crosby, who's enjoyed playing at the "World's Most Famous Arena" having now compiled 20 points in 20 career games after assisting on Chris Kunitz's third period goal (UPDATE: The NHL has added a second assist for Crosby on Pascal Dupuis' goal, so 21 points in 20 games at MSG.). And as is protocol every time Crosby does New York, he was booed vociferously with every touch of the puck.
The boos have never had an effect on Crosby, no matter where he's played. On Thursday night, he was more concerned with controlling his own emotions.
"I was just trying to calm myself a little more than what I was last time," said Crosby.
"I was pretty excited (last time) and I was obviously excited this time but I didn't want to get caught trying to do too much. Just making sure I as responsible out there, doing the right thing, all those details are important especially in big games like that. I was trying to make sure I was playing as even-keeled as I could. It wasn't easy, but to get the result we got and play the way we did obviously makes things easier."
While the leading storyline heading into the game was Crosby's return, it also served as a major battle between two teams vying for both the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference titles, and potentially a preview of a playoff series we might see in two month's time.
It was tough to imagine what was going to be at stake during this game, looking at the schedule a few weeks prior. The Penguins trailed the Rangers by 10 points just a month ago. The way New York was playing, with Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards clicking, and Henrik Lundqvist running away with the Vezina Trophy, it seemed as if the Atlantic Division title was in the bag. Then the Rangers slipped up, going 7-5-2 in the 14 games leading up to Thursday, and Pittsburgh reeled off their third winning streak this season of eight games or more to move to within six points of New York.
Now, with a game in hand, the Penguins stand four points behind the Rangers with 13 games to go.
"We want to get first in the division, that's been the goal all along," said Penguins Head Coach Dan Bylsma. "It's not something new. It's not something we dreamed up three weeks ago. We wanted that to be the case. We've been a long ways away 10 and 11, 12 points at times. We've put this 10 in a row together … we beat them twice and we're in a situation where we still are looking at the Rangers ahead of us and want to catch them for first in the division."
Crosby's return to the Penguins' lineup, should he remain healthy this time around, will put a scare in the spines of their Eastern Conference foes. Playing exactly 16 minutes on the third line, with dashes of juggling his partners throughout the game, allowed the horses — James Neal and Evgeni Malkin — to work and handle the offensive load. Thursday's game was just the 10th in the past two seasons that Crosby, Malkin and Jordan Staal were in the lineup together, and just the ninth since the team acquired Neal in February of last season.
Now as Crosby eases back into things, a fully healthy Penguins lineup threatens to upset the order in the East. The Rangers have led the division and conference for majority of the season and two recent losses to Pittsburgh sets up for a potential division and conference title match on April 5, the penultimate game of the season for both teams.
"It's certainly the start of seeing a healthy team," said Bylsma. "It's matchups and what you can do. There's a lot you can see that it'd be tough to play against if you could get those guys rolling and going that would be good for us."
Follow Sean Leahy on Twitter at @Sean_Leahy
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