Penguins knock off Islanders in Crosby's return

| Friday, March 28, 2008

In a fairy-tale world, Sidney Crosby would have celebrated his triumphant return to the Penguins lineup after a seven-game absence by setting up Marian Hossa for a highlight-reel goal against the New York Islanders at Mellon Arena.

He nearly succeeded. Several times, in fact. But instead of Crosby and Hossa, it was a pair of fourth-line wingers without either of their pedigrees who stole the show.

Jarkko Ruutu scored an unassisted, shorthanded goal late in the second period, and Georges Laraque notched a key insurance goal in the third to help the Penguins (45-26-7) to a 3-1 victory over the Islanders. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury chipped in with 27 saves, as the Penguins gained a one-point lead over Montreal for first place in the Eastern Conference.

"First of all, the ice was not good, and the building was warm, the players were complaining, and the pucks were bouncing all around, so it's tough for a skill player, especially guys with a lot of speed," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. "On a game like this, you want your grinders to make a difference, and (Maxime) Talbot, Ruutu and Laraque did a fantastic job."

It was the fourth goal in the last six games for Ruutu -- who has only six goals all season and had not scored a shorthanded goal since Jan. 24, 2001, while he was with Vancouver -- and just the second of his career. In addition to the wraparound goal against Islanders goaltender Wayne Dubielewicz at 15:12 of the second period, he finished with a career-best three points as he assisted on goals by Laraque and Evgeni Malkin.

"I know one thing, my first goal ever was a shorthanded goal that went in off my skates, and that's probably the other one," Ruutu said. "I tried the wraparound, and I think he barely got his pad on it, and I don't know how it went in."

For Laraque, it was only his fourth goal of the season and ended a 32-game goalless drought. He had not hit the back of the net since Jan. 8 in a 3-1 against the Florida Panthers.

"On the breakaway, I got lucky and lost the puck," Laraque said. "I just chipped it in. I didn't mean to do that, and it went in."

As for as the anticipated pairing of Crosby and Hossa, the coveted scoring winger that general manager Ray Shero brought to Pittsburgh along with Pascal Dupuis for Colby Armstrong, Erik Christensen, Angelo Esposito and their first-round draft pick in June, well, that only lasted for a little more than two periods. This time, however, it wasn't because of a recurrence of the high right ankle sprain that had haunted Crosby since the original injury on Jan. 18 that cost him 28 of the previous 31 games.

Twice Hossa was escorted to the Penguins dressing room with injuries. On the first he was hit with a hip check in open ice by New York right wing Trent Hunter with 11:25 to play in the second period but returned a few minutes later.

His second exit was permanent, as he was skating backward through the neutral zone and was hit from behind by Islanders left wing Sean Bergenheim and sent flying to the ice. After he was helped off, the Penguins officially termed it an upper body injury, but Hossa was walking around the Penguins dressing room after the game.

Crosby made his debut with Hossa 57 seconds into the game and, though the two did not have the anticipated magical chemistry, they did have several outstanding scoring chances. Perhaps the best came just 20 seconds before Hossa was first helped to the ice, when Crosby threw a pass through the crease that almost connected with the all-star right wing at the far post.

Hossa couldn't turn the puck over to sneak it past Dubielewicz, but he nearly banked a shot off a defenseman in the low slot and in on the same sequence.

"Eventually they'll be together. It's a good combination," Therrien said. "I like, for the amount of time they played together, they've got the speed to play together and they'll be fine."

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