Sidney Crosby is back. Again. And his Pittsburgh Penguins might be the best team in the NHL. Again.
Crosby's sequel return came in a 5-2 victory over the New York Rangers on Thursday and the Pens captain skated mostly on the third line, collecting an assist and finishing plus-3 in 16 minutes of ice time.
The win was Pittsburgh's 10th in a row to climb within reach of the league-leading Rangers.
It was Crosby's first contest in more than three months, since December 5, and while it did not generate the same level of hype and anticipation as his previous comeback after nearly a year out of action – back on November 21 against the New York Islanders, a game in which Crosby scored twice and added two assists – the sight of the No 87 whirring around on the ice, never far from the action, was encouraging and exciting for the entire NHL.
Crosby was limited to eight games in his initial comeback. It was cut short after an accidental collision resulted in a re-emergence of concussion-like symptoms and another stint on the sidelines.
But he is back, again, and the hope now is Crosby can remain healthy and reclaim his status as the best player in the game, while leading the Pens deep into the play-offs and perhaps to their second Stanley Cup in four seasons.
The good news for the Penguins is that if Crosby does not immediately reclaim the throne, it is probably because it has been taken over by his teammate Evgeni Malkin. Throw Jordan Staal into the mix, and Pittsburgh's 1-2-3 combination down the middle gives them the best pivot package in the NHL.
The Penguins, though, are more than just Crosby. They are more than Malkin. And they are more than the Crosby-Malkin-Staal centre-ice punch that is capable of knocking out even the most formidable foes. There is Marc-Andre Fleury, a best-goalie candidate, and Kris Letang, a best-defenceman candidate on the blueline (at least before he endured his own concussion issues). There is James Neal and Chris Kunitz, Malkin's top-line teammates in Crosby's absence. There is Pascal Dupuis, Crosby's long-time and reliable linemate, and the veteran Steve Sullivan, hungry for his first title.
There is a top-flight defence corps supporting Letang. The Penguins, when healthy and in synch, have all the pieces for a championship. Crosby is the key, but do not forget that Pittsburgh won nine in a row before his most recent comeback. They are the cup favourites with him in the line-up; but even without him, they are still contenders.