The Pittsburgh Penguins have won 9 games in a row and have the second most points in the Eastern Conference. As the playoffs near, do you think things can not get much better? You bet they can. On Thursday night against the Rangers they welcome back the game's best player in Sidney Crosby and possibly their best defenseman in Kris Letang.
Crosby's long awaited return is tempered over concerns about his long term health. He has essentially lost 15 months due to concussion. In his brief come back earlier this season he exited 8 games later after a seemingly routine hit. Will he be able to withstand the NHL playoffs? Even if he can, can he ever be the same elite player he was just emerging to be? Of lesser concern is his conditioning, although Crosby at 70% is better than most players.
Letang could also return on Thursday vs New York. If not his return is imminent. He has emerged as a top defenseman in the NHL and is likely to play for Team Canada's 2014 Olympic team. He is a game changer.
The return of Crosby and Letang is one heck of a boost for a team that is already a Stanley Cup contender. Evgeni Malkin has carried the team offensively and in spirit. Marc Andre Fleury has been really solid and at times spectacular in net. Coach Dan Bylsma may very well be the best coach in hockey right now. And the Pens depth players deserve a lot of credit for making the Penguins so strong in Crosby's absence.
Predicting this year's playoffs is a real tough task. Many of the usual suspects - Detroit, Vancouver, San Jose, Boston, Chicago - have nose dived of late. St. Louis is the league's hottest team, but are they ready to win four playoff rounds? I'm not so convinced. As of this date I really like Nashville in the west.
But Pittsburgh with a healthy Crosby and a motivated Malkin could very well be the team to beat.