It appears the much-anticipated return of the Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby has finally arrived. If Crosby does not play Sunday in Arizona, barring a setback he appears to be a strong candidate to get a sweater Tuesday in Pittsburgh against the Minnesota Wild. On Saturday afternoon, the Penguins and Crosby went through a full practice without caveats of ice time availability or non-contact jerseys.
And head coach Mike Sullivan finally tipped his hand regarding the new lines as Crosby skated with Dominik Simon and Patric Hornqvist. Jared McCann also took a few skates on Crosby’s left.
Interestingly, Sullivan did not disassemble his other lines to form a top line for Crosby. Sullivan left the red-hot Evgeni Malkin with the equally productive Bryan Rust and Dominik Kahun.
Sometimes you just leave well enough alone.
The Kahun-Malkin-Rust line has been providing a disproportionate amount of the Penguins offense but also leading the Penguins to a disproportionate number of wins against the gale force winds of losing several significant players including Crosby. The Penguins have won 17 of 27 games without Crosby, and they have points in 21 of those games.
Malkin has been score. And fire.
In just 31 games, he has 42 points, including 13 goals. Malkin and Rust have been the primary Penguins producers.
The previous million-dollar question was who would get Jake Guentzel on their line? In the wake of Guentzel’s season-ending injury, Rust became the belle of the ball.
“There are those guys in the league who are going to control the play, who are stars who make things happen every time on the ice,” Rust said. “And there are guys who contribute and help those guys do their best and play to their best.”
The Penguins speedy winger who had just 35 points last season has already scored 18 goals, which is a career-high. Rust and Malkin scored goals on Friday night against Colorado. Perhaps Rust has graduated from a contributor to one of those players who make things happen?
“I don’t know,” he said. “I haven’t thought about it.”
Pittsburgh Penguins Lines: McCann-Crosby
Based on practice on Saturday, it looks like Crosby will play with Dominik Simon in the short term. However, Sullivan also worked McCann onto Crosby’s left-wing, too.
McCann has been a dynamic performer on the wing since the Penguins acquired him last February and switched him to left-wing later that month. Because of injuries, the pair played just 91 seconds together this season.
When paired last season, the duo dominated high danger scoring chances with a 63% share. Their goal differential was only plus-one, but the eye test often showed the pair to be game-changers.
“(Crosby) made my job a lot easier. It was one of my first times playing wing, and I played wing the entire time, then,” McCann said. “It was easy (with Crosby). He was always in the right spots defensively, and we turned that into offense.”
Injuries also kept Crosby and occasional linemate Simon apart for most of this season, but before Crosby was injured, Simon had his own hot streak. Simon had nine points (2g, 7a) in the first 13 games, which is a 54-point pace.
McCann already has 12 goals this season. Last season, he set a career-high with 19 goals split between Florida and the Penguins, but most came in Pittsburgh. The 23-year-old has been on an upward trajectory since becoming a Penguin.
“What we like about Jared on the wing are his speed and his scoring ability,” Sullivan said on the Penguins western Canada road trip in mid-December. “He’s got a pretty good straight-ahead game. He can take defensemen wide. He can get separation. And, when he gets that separation, he can finish.”
McCann is currently needed elsewhere in the Penguins lineup. Until Nick Bjugstad returns, the Penguins need a center, unless they’re willing to roll with Teddy Blueger as a third-line center but Andrew Aggozino or Sam Lafferty as their fourth liner.
Also, center Nick Bjugstad and defenseman Justin Schultz will soon return to the lineup, too. Both have been skating before or after team practices.
Knock on wood, light a candle, do a ceremonial anti-injury dance, we may soon find out just how good this Pittsburgh Penguins team can be. They’ve already shown the core attributes of a winner and begun to create something special. If not on Sunday, then soon we’ll also find out what that team looks like.