A few days before the NHL trade deadline, Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Ray Shero sat down with his captain. He always sits down with his captain at that time of year. He wants to know what he thinks. He wants to keep him in the loop. But this time Shero had an ulterior motive.
Sidney Crosby had been training, skating, still trying to recover from concussion symptoms. He hadn't played since Dec. 5. He had played only eight games in more than a year. Shero told him the Penguins might be able to make a splash at the deadline, but they would need to use his salary-cap space to do it. That would mean he couldn't return until the playoffs.
"I didn't have that deal, but I just wanted to test him and see what he said," Shero said with a smile. "He just said, 'Ray, I'm not doing all this, working this hard, not to come back, you know.' I'm like, 'Yeah, OK. I got ya.' He wants to play."
And now he will play again, finally.
The Penguins didn't add anyone at the deadline, but they might get the ultimate boost when Crosby returns Thursday night against the New York Rangers.
It is unfair to expect too much. Crosby has missed too much. Then again, when he made his first comeback Nov. 21 against the New York Islanders, I went to Pittsburgh prepared to write a give-him-some-time column, and he took all of 5:24 to rush up ice, hold off a defender and roof a backhander to score on his first shot. He scored two goals and added two assists that night, and he produced 10 points in the eight games before he slipped back into the darkness.
It is still unfair to expect too much. Crosby set the comeback bar awfully high. Then again, even Shero has trouble managing expectations. It's OK if he doesn't play in each of the next three games - key division battles against the Rangers, New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers, all on the road, all in a span of four days. But if he feels good, he could. He doesn't have to play many minutes. But he might.
"He'll jump into a certain situation on our team and not be relied upon to play 25 minutes, but if he does play 25 minutes, don't hold it against me," Shero said, smiling again. "I think once he says he's ready to play, you trust the fact he's comfortable and confident to get out there and play and be hit and play his game."
There is obvious apprehension. If Crosby lasted only eight games last time - and was knocked out by a collision with a teammate and a routine elbow from an opponent - how long will he last this time? Is he more susceptible to concussions? The media will monitor him breathlessly. Penguins fans will be holding their breath. It could be that way for the rest of his career, or at least until he plays long enough without a relapse. But there is reason to be optimistic that he can move past this. After countless visits with specialists, the problem was narrowed down to his neck. That provided some clarity, some certainty, something to attack, and he attacked it fully aware that he didn't want to attack it again. You've got to believe he was extra careful before declaring himself fit to play.
"He felt good about himself knowing what he had to work on and getting back to a certain point," Shero said. "As we've all seen, he's worked hard at that on and off the ice. So all he's said now is, 'I've practiced enough. I'm ready.' "
By returning now, Crosby is giving himself a chance to be ready for the playoffs. It's hard enough to jump into action during the stretch run amid a competitive race. It would have been even harder to jump into action in the playoffs.
If Crosby can be Crosby or close to it - and the rest of the Penguins are healthy, most notably defenseman Kris Letang - Pittsburgh will be the team to beat. Evgeni Malkin has played at an MVP level. James Neal has put the puck in the net, and Marc-Andre Fleury has kept the puck out of it. This is a skilled, experienced, deep, tough team. The Pens can win any style of game.
Bottom line: They have won nine consecutive games going into Thursday’s game in New York and have gone 21-4-1 in their last 26, and now they are adding a player who was hands-down the best player in the world before he was injured.
All the Penguins' opponents can do is state the obvious.
"Pittsburgh has shown to be a pretty good team without him over the last number of months here, really, when you think about it," said Flyers GM Paul Holmgren. "This is just going to make them that much better."
Said Devils GM Lou Lamoriello: "We certainly liked playing Pittsburgh when he was out of the lineup, not that they weren't [good without him]. There's no question he'll make their team better, but it's great to have him back in the game."
This is hu-MAN-gous big for the Flyers. No more funny quotes from Ilya Bryzgalov about the universe, or his hot Siberian husky, or his thermos of tea. No more HBO "24/7" stuff, or Winter Classic controversy, or disappointing play.
After meeting with the Flyers' leadership group and listening to goaltending coach Jeff Reese, Bryzgalov has shut up and shut out three straight opponents. He has stopped 152 of the last 154 shots he has faced.
"I think he likes to talk, and now I think he's just focusing on talking about hockey, the game itself," Holmgren said. "One thing we did stress with him: It's time to get down to business, the business of winning hockey games. That's what we need to focus on right now, not all the other stuff, and I think he's done that."
Holmgren said a lot of players go through an adjustment period when they join a new team, especially when they sign a big contract like the nine-year, $51-million deal Bryzgalov did as a free agent. He pointed to Danny Briere, to Scott Hartnell. "I think Ilya is no different than a lot of guys," he said.
True. Except Bryzgalov is different than a lot of guys, and this is a particularly difficult situation. Bryz was an unique character as a Phoenix Coyote, too. He just wasn't on center stage like he is in Philly, where the media attention is more intense, HBO just happened to be filming the Flyers this season and the goaltending has been an issue for years. The focus on the position can make problems a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The crowd can turn in an instant. But for now, the fans are chanting "Bryz!" in Philly. Bryzgalov seems to have confidence in himself and to be instilling confidence in his teammates as the playoffs approach. Take a point-blank shot Bryzgalov steered into the corner during Tuesday night's 3-0 victory over the Devils.
"To us on the bench, this is a huge play," Briere said. "It's a huge chance for them, and you see Bryz make a casual save like that and it's like, 'Oh, maybe not. Maybe that wasn't even a good chance.' "
Maybe this will work after all.
"I do think it's just being comfortable in the confines of playing goal in Philadelphia," Holmgren said with a little laugh. "Whatever that means."
Stamkos could win the Art Ross Trophy as the league's scoring champion, too. He is tied with Malkin for the scoring lead with 84 points.
But what about the Hart Trophy? There is no question Stamkos deserves to be a candidate for the most valuable player award, along with Malkin, Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and perhaps a few others. But should he actually win it if the Bolts don't make the playoffs? They're 11th in the East, seven points out of eighth.
"All I can say is, he's so valuable - what he's done and the goals that he's scored and his play in the defensive zone," said Lightning GM Steve Yzerman. "He's doing a lot of things, so he should be considered. Playoffs comes into it, but I think you've just got to look at, in general, who's the most valuable player to their team regardless of whether they finish first, seventh, eighth, 10th?"
Stamkos is on pace for 59 goals and 99 points. If he reaches 60 goals and 100 points, his numbers might be sexy enough to draw some votes. But it's doubtful he will draw enough if the Bolts fall short.
Hart or not, Stamkos has had a hell of a season. Three seasons, actually. With 13 games to go this season, the 22-year-old has scored 146 goals and posted 270 points since the start of 2009-10. He also made his only playoff appearance, scoring six goals and posting 13 points as the Bolts came within a win of the Stanley Cup final.
Yzerman, who rarely raves about anything, raves about Stamkos the way people used to rave about him.
"He's driven," Yzerman said. "He's won at every level - every level he's played at - and he's committed. He works hard at practice. He trains hard in the off-season and during the season. He wants to be better in all areas of the game. He's extremely competitive. For such a humble, polite, respectful guy, he's very, very competitive, and that shows in his work ethic."
George McPhee can't watch. If he's not in the building, where he can see everything, the general manager of the Washington Capitals won't tune in on television when his team is playing. Too many commercial breaks. Too much of an emotional roller coaster. Just too hard. He'll check the score after the game and watch a recording later.
So, because he was at the GM meetings in Boca Raton, Fla., he wasn't watching Tuesday night when his Capitals fell into a three-goal hole and rallied for a 5-4 shootout victory on Long Island. Probably better for his blood pressure.
This whole season has been hard to watch. The Capitals got off to a disappointing start, prompting McPhee to fire coach Bruce Boudreau and replace him with Dale Hunter. It did not lead to a quick turnaround. Alexander Ovechkin continues to search for his old form. The Caps continue to search for a new identity.
But McPhee says he sees some encouraging signs.
"It doesn't happen very often in our business where the coaching change makes a big difference, but you have to make the change for certain reasons," McPhee said. "I like the way our team plays now. We play hard. They block shots, and the players know with Dale, if you're not doing those things, you don't play. If you want to play, you've got to put the effort in. He's been real black and white on that."
The Caps are eighth in the East, and you never know. They could face the top-seeded Rangers in the first round - the same Rangers they beat in the first round last year. Wouldn't it be ironic if after great regular seasons and disappointing playoffs, the Caps have a disappointing regular season and a surprising playoffs? It has happened before, and it could happen again. (It could happen out West, too. The San Jose Sharks, who made the conference final the past two years, could end up eighth. Some reward for the top seed, eh?)
"It's been a tough year for us, but it doesn't mean it can't end up being a great one," McPhee siad. "We're not focused on playoffs so much as just trying to have a good run here. We've had real good runs the last four or five years after the deadline. We can only hope that we're going to have another good one."
Now that the regular season is headed down the stretch, we're shaking up the format for NHL Power Rankings. No more top six, bottom six. It's time for the top 10.
1. Pittsburgh Penguins: When healthy, is this Penguins team better than the one that won the Stanley Cup in 2009? Shero declined to compare. "A lot of good teams out there right now, they don't really give a crap what we look like," he said. Let's talk in June.
2. St. Louis Blues: Imagine you're Jaden Schwartz. You're 19 years old. You just finished your sophomore season at Colorado College. Now you're joining the No. 1 team in the NHL standings down the stretch. It will be quite a jump, but obviously the Blues think the 2010 first-round pick can handle it and will benefit from the experience in the long term.
4. Vancouver Canucks: Six games into a seven-game homestand, the Canucks have only two victories - and one loss was to lowly Montreal. Still, they have a 12-point cushion atop the Northwest Division, the biggest lead in the league, and that might be the problem. They have nothing to push them right now, and their season is all about the playoffs, anyway.
5. Nashville Predators: Asked how the Kostitsyn brothers were doing since Andrei was reunited with Sergei at the trade deadline, GM David Poile cracked: "The Costanzas?" We were at the GM meetings in Boca Raton, Fla. All I could think about was Del Boca Vista.
7.Detroit Red Wings: Nicklas Lidstrom is mortal after all. The man/machine who is virtually never injured/malfunctioning can't shake a lingering ankle injury, and the Wings are struggling without him. Lidstrom, 41, a 20-year veteran, had never missed more than six straight games until now. He's at eight and counting.
8. New Jersey Devils: The goals have come in bunches or not at all lately. In the past nine games, the Devils have scored at least four goals four times and have been shut out three times. Adam Henrique, a candidate for the Calder Trophy as the rookie of the year, has not scored in 13 games.
9. Boston Bruins: The Bruins have lost three in a row and are 5-8-1 in their last 14 games. Veteran Marty Turco, signed out of Austria to replace injured backup Tuukka Rask, struggled badly in his first attempt at spelling starter Tim Thomas. The defending champs are in danger of losing their lead in the Northeast and slipping into seventh in the East.
10. Chicago Blackhawks: Jonathan Toews has missed 11 games and counting. After skating for four straight days, he rested for two days. Interesting to hear Stan Bowman discuss concussion protocol at the GM meetings: "If the guy doesn't feel right, then he doesn't feel right, but he's the only guy that knows that."
PLUS: Brendan Shanahan used video to show the varying degrees of certain infractions to the GMs on Monday. What is a minor, a major, a major and a fine, a major and a suspension? The senior vice-president of player safety wanted to get everyone on the same page before the playoffs - before the inevitable arguments at the most heated time of year. "I didn't want gamesmanship to come into the way of my rulings and my decisions," Shanahan said.
MINUS: The NHL refuses to release hard concussion data publicly. "I suppose you can question whether we're being truthful or accurate, but I think we have a pretty good track record on that," deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. Even if we agree that the league has a good track record on that - and even if we trust that concussions are flat compared to this point last season, after a jump from 2009-10 to 2010-11 - this is a serious issue that deserves more transparency.
PLUS: There is still hope of keeping the Coyotes in Phoenix. For now. "Look, at some point in time, obviously we're going to have to explore Plan B if we don't have Plan A completed," Daly said. "My guess is that we'll proceed on a parallel track if and when it becomes necessary, but I can't tell you even a timeline for when that becomes necessary." It's already March 15. The train has to be coming down the track soon.
MINUS: The Los Angeles Kings' Mike Richards groused that the players have little say in rule changes. But the players are part of the competition committee, and collective bargaining is coming up. If the players feel unsafe, if they feel the GMs haven't done enough, then they have every ability and every right to effect change. Everything is on the table this summer.
PLUS: Jamie McGinn has scored seven goals in eight games since the Colorado Avalanche acquired him at the trade deadline, including the tying goal with two seconds left Wednesday night as the Avs beat the streaking Buffalo Sabres in a shootout, 5-4. The Avs are eighth in the West.
MINUS: The Sharks have scored 11 goals in seven games since trading McGinn at the deadline. The Sharks are ninth in the West, though they are only two points behind the Avs with have three games in hand.
“Woke up, went to lobby for coffee and heard Dick Vitale shouting "BABY!" on TV with volume way up. I must be at the tourney. #YahooNCAA”
Taking a break from hockey this weekend to help with Yahoo! Sports' coverage of the NCAA tournament. Should be fun. Haven't covered college basketball since the 2004-05 NHL lockout, when I hopped onto the Michigan State beat at the Detroit Free Press and followed the Spartans all the way to the Final Four. I'll be in Columbus, Ohio. So will the Spartans. So is that good for MSU or bad? #cotsonikajinx