News that superstar Sidney Crosby would be in Saturday night’s Penguins/Devils game had to be music to Pittsburgh’s ears. It comes just in time before the Pens are challenged by a number of talented opponents, and the pressure to perform couldn’t be put on shoulders more capable of handling it than Crosby’s.
The Penguins’ good news also includes the return Saturday of veteran Penguins center Jeff Carter into the lineup. Carter had three assists and four points in four games this season before being sidelined by COVID-19 protocols on Oct. 22. But certainly, Crosby’s first game of the 2021-22 regular season will have more of an impact than Carter’s return to good health. Crosby is now 34 years old and coming off of off-season wrist surgery, so Penguins GM Ron Hextall will be more than a little relieved when he sees No. 87 take the ice as the Pens host New Jersey.
Crosby’s arrival is just the thing Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan needs to prevent Pittsburgh’s current two-game losing streak (they’ve also dropped three of their past four games) from mushrooming into something that will severely and adversely affect the Pens’ shot at making the playoffs. We’re already seeing how difficult it’s going to be to earn a post-season berth in the Metropolitan Division, and it’s already somewhat of a minor miracle that Pittsburgh has amassed eight standings points in their first seven games of the year – all but three of which were marred by the health-related absences of Crosby, star forward Evgeni Malkin, and top-pair defenseman Kris Letang (who was in COVID protocols).
And were it not for Crosby and Carter getting back in action, the story for the Pens could be dramatically different as they spend the next two weeks taking on tough adversaries, including the Minnesota Wild, Philadelphia Flyers, Florida Panthers and Washington Capitals. They’re going to need contributions from Crosby and Carter just about right away, but both of them have been through the wringer before and came out of it with a couple of Stanley Cup rings on their fingers.
The Penguins aren’t at full strength yet (Malkin, Letang and winger Bryan Rust remain sidelined), but even having Crosby and Carter back is something Hextall and team president Brian Burke have been waiting on. At full strength, Pittsburgh can beat anyone. Same goes at nearly-full strength. If there’s any spot to keep an eye on in the weeks ahead, it’s the goaltender position; starter Tristan Jarry has posted a 3-1-1 record and .935 save percentage to begin this season, but backup Casey DeSmith is 0-1-1 with an .878 SP. The Penguins are salary-capped-out but don’t be surprised to see them trade for an experienced hand in net. The last thing management should want is a reprisal of the Penguins’ 2021 playoffs, when Jarry imploded and Sullivan wasn’t ready or willing to switch things up with DeSmith. But that’s what they risk if they don’t accumulate some depth between the pipes.
Pittsburgh’s 3-2-2 record before Saturday’s game is what they look like treading water. Players have responded decently enough without having arguably the team’s three best talents alongside them. And now that Crosby and Carter are playing, expectations for the team as a whole will rise accordingly.
Crosby won’t do it all on his own – part of what makes him superb is his ability to elevate the games of those around him – but his presence on the ice and in the dressing room instantly makes Pittsburgh a more dangerous team than they’ve been so far. Malkin and Letang also will be happily welcomed back, but there’s something a little extra that comes along with Crosby’s return.
You can call it an infusion of swagger if you want to, but there should be swagger when your team adds one of the very best players on the planet.