Crosby stays behind in Dallas as Penguins open post-break against Stars

Crosby and the Penguins open their post-break schedule on the road against the Dallas Stars on Friday night. “It’s nice actually, to be able to stay here and not pack my bags,” said Crosby, who made his all-star game debut on Wednesday. “It worked out well with the schedule.”

It’s the beginning of what surely will be a wild finish to the regular season with the Penguins in the thick of a mad playoff race for the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference.

“We’re right there, tied for eighth right now, these games are big for sure,” said the 19-year-old star.

Pittsburgh has 50 points but only four points separate eighth from 14th in the crazy East, with the New York Rangers (50 points), Toronto Maple Leafs (50 points), Boston Bruins (48 points), New York Islanders (48 points), Washington Capitals (47 points) and Florida Panthers (46 points) all in the hunt.

The battle in the Western Conference is just as fierce with 10 weeks remaining in the regular season. Northwest Division rivals Calgary (56 points), Vancouver (56 points), Minnesota (54 points), Colorado (51 points) and Edmonton (50 points) have played musical chairs with the division lead all season but when the music stops in April two of those clubs likely won’t be in the playoffs.

“We have a big hill to climb,” said all-star Oilers winger Ryan Smyth. “We’ve got to get going. We know we’re a good team.”

Trade talk, meanwhile, could heat up in the next few weeks heading into the Feb. 27 trade deadline. There haven’t been many moves this season, in large part because of teams having their hands tied by the salary cap as well as a lack of sellers. Only Philadelphia and Los Angeles at this point really feel they’re out. Every other team is still holding out hope on the playoffs but others may drop out by the time Feb. 27 rolls around.

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Most of the intrigue surrounds Peter Forsberg and whether the Philadelphia Flyers will move the potential unrestricted free agent. There are several teams who might be interested in the star forward. Atlanta hasn’t had a No. 1 centre all season while Montreal needs a true fit on the second line with Alexei Kovalev and Detroit could use a boost on offence. Calgary may also be in the mix, although Daymond Langkow and Matthew Lombardi have been tremendous.

The Red Wings and Thrashers are right up against the salary cap and would need to make room. Forsberg’s salary cap hit on trade deadline day would be around $2 million for the rest of the season.

Forsberg spent the all-star break back home in Sweden where he consulted a foot specialist. If he’s not feeling like his foot problems are solved to the point he can play at the level he wants to be at, it’s not clear whether he’ll want to waive his no-trade clause if he feels he can’t help anyone. That’s why contract talks with the Flyers haven’t gone anywhere at this point.

Closer to home, the Oilers continue to search for a defenceman and GM Kevin Lowe’s history tells us he’ll deliver. The Canucks could use some depth on defence, the Senators already traded for centre Mike Comrie but GM John Muckler may try to add another forward. Then there’s Toronto. How the Leafs perform over the next four weeks will have a huge bearing on what transpires at the trade deadline. Will they be buyers or sellers?

“It’s not only a big month for us, every game now is huge for us,” said Leafs all-star defenceman Tomas Kaberle. “They’re going to be like playoff games for us. We have some injured guys but somebody has to step up and we have to play better hockey than the first half.”