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Crosby's return to come with emphasis on playmaking

| Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The world's most famous hockey player will be performing at the world's most famous arena on Thursday, yet there will be something unfamiliar about Sidney Crosby's surroundings.

Crosby will have new linemates and a new role on the power play when the Penguins meet the Rangers in an Eastern Conference showdown at Madison Square Garden. He also won't be playing as many minutes as usual. At least not yet.

"I think this time," coach Dan Bylsma said, "shooting for around the 15-minute mark in the game is more likely given the fact we're playing three (games) in four (nights) and him getting back in the lineup again for the first time in a while."

The point is clear: Bylsma and the Penguins are going to be careful with Crosby, even more than when he returned in November.

Playing Crosby with left wing Matt Cooke and right wing Tyler Kennedy is an example of Bylsma essentially handcuffing himself from playing his captain for too many minutes.

"If there was another combination or if it was (Chris Kunitz) and (Pascal Dupuis on a line with Crosby)," Bylsma said, "it would be a lot tougher to keep him at 15 minutes."

Crosby has never played on a line with Cooke and Kennedy. Center Jordan Staal ordinarily centers that line when the Penguins are healthy.

"We're going to try to move our feet and control the puck down low and generate some good chances," Crosby said, "hopefully off the cycle."

Crosby developed into perhaps the league's best goal scorer during the past three seasons. He led the league with 51 goals during the 2009-10 season and scored 32 goals through 41 games in the 2010-11 season before being hampered by concussions.

However, it appears -- at least, at first -- that he will go back to his roots by becoming primarily a facilitator. His ability to set up teammates has always been natural, as evidenced by his 10 assists in eight games in November.

"He's an incredible passer," said Kennedy, who always looks to shoot. "I've never really played with him before, but you've got to be expecting the pass at any time from him."

Crosby also sounds like he'll be setting the table on the power play more than taking shots. He'll see some time on the point while center Evgeni Malkin will maintain his duties at the right wing wall.

Crosby is intent on making sure Malkin receives a heavy amount of opportunities on the power play.

"I think I'm able to see a lot of the ice there (from the point)," Crosby said. "And I've got Geno, who loves that big shot on the side wall. My job would be to try and distribute the puck amongst everyone, but when he's shooting the puck like that, just giving it to him in that area and letting him work there."

With 14 games remaining before the playoffs, Crosby has time to work himself into condition and refine all aspects of his game.

Bylsma admitted that he will tinker with his lines before the playoffs, and expects to play the 24-year-old star on a multitude of lines including some time playing wing with center Jordan Staal. There also remains a possibility that Crosby will play with Kunitz and Dupuis again.

"With 14 games left," Bylsma said, "we'll see the next five, seven, eight games ... different combinations on the ice. It's a good number of games left to have."

And having Crosby back is a good thing for the Penguins.

Given the team's recent play -- the Penguins are looking for their 10th straight win on Thursday -- there is not a sense of urgency to rush Crosby back into the spotlight.

The plan is to let Crosby find his way during the next few weeks before unleashing him, full speed, in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

"It's exciting for everyone," Kennedy said.

Additional Information:

Time check

The Penguins let Sidney Crosby play considerable minutes when he returned to the lineup in November. Coach Dan Bylsma plans on keeping those numbers in check starting on Thursday. Here are Crosby's minutes in each of his eight games during his previous return:

Date -- Ice time

Nov. 21, 2011-15:54

Nov. 23, 2011-18:41

Nov. 25, 2011-17:06

Nov. 26, 2011-20:55

Nov. 29, 2011-20:36

Dec. 1, 2011-20:21

Dec. 3, 2011-19:27

Dec. 5, 2011-21:03

Additional Information:

Lining up

With Sidney Crosby returning to the lineup Thursday, here's how the Penguins' lines are shaking up -- for now.

Left wing - Center - Right wing

Chris Kunitz - Evgeni Malkin - James Neal

Steve Sullivan - Jordan Staal - Pascal Dupuis

Matt Cooke - Sidney Crosby - Tyler Kennedy

Craig Adams - Joe Vitale - Arron Asham

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