That return may come as soon as Thursday night.
Out since late November, defenseman Kris Letang could be back as the Penguins visit Madison Square Garden looking to win their fourth straight overall and also snap a four-game skid against the league-best New York Rangers.
Pittsburgh (24-17-4) played just four games with Letang, Crosby and Evgeni Malkin - their three 2011 All-Star skaters - on the ice together after Crosby’s Nov. 21 return from a concussion that sidelined him for more than 10 months.
The Penguins went 3-0-1 in that stretch and had an NHL-leading 32 points Nov. 26 when Letang was dropped on a hit to the head from Montreal’s Max Pacioretty. Four games later, Crosby took a seemingly innocent shot from Boston’s David Krejci.
Little had been known about the progress of either player until the past few days, as Crosby spoke to the media for the first time in more than a month Friday and Letang returned to practice Tuesday. Crosby has yet to be cleared medically, but Letang - who was tied for the NHL lead among defensemen with 19 points when he went down - has.
Coach Dan Bylsma said Wednesday there’s a chance Letang’s first game in nearly two months could come Thursday.
“He’s progressed with difficult skating on his own to get his conditioning, which he’s been able to do,” Bylsma told the Penguins’ official website. “Getting back with the team, he’ll be on the ice with us (Thursday) morning again. We’re hopeful he’ll be in the (four) remaining games we have left (before the All-Star break).”
The four games before the break are challenging, with matchups against surging Washington and St. Louis after the trip to MSG, but Pittsburgh has gotten a boost from Malkin.
Tied for 26th in the league with 24 points when Crosby went down, Malkin is now tied for the NHL lead with 52. He has 13 goals and 15 assists in his last 17 games, including the Penguins’ lone regulation goal and another in the shootout of a 2-1 victory over Carolina on Tuesday.
“He’s getting the lion’s share of responsibilities right now in a lot of areas and playing outstanding,” Bylsma said.
Malkin was held off the scoresheet and mustered just one shot against Henrik Lundqvist on Jan. 6 when the Rangers (29-11-4) won 3-1 at Consol Energy Center.
The former Conn Smythe Trophy winner has 15 multipoint games this season, but just one in his last 17 meetings with New York.
The Rangers, who yield a league-low 1.98 goals per game, returned to form Tuesday against Nashville. Two days after coach John Tortorella said New York had “no structure defensively” in a 4-1 loss at Montreal, a solid effort helped Lundqvist earn his fourth shutout - a 3-0 victory.
“We weren’t happy with our game in Montreal at all,” right wing Ryan Callahan, who has four goals and five assists during the Rangers’ four-game winning streak against Pittsburgh, told the NHL’s official website. “I think this whole year, we’ve responded well after poor performances.
“Good teams … don’t let it snowball and turn into two losses or three losses.”
The Rangers have given up three goals apiece in their last two home wins against the Penguins following a five-game series skid at MSG, but Pittsburgh shouldn’t count on much offense Thursday. New York has limited opponents to 12 total goals in its last nine home games.
Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is 6-8-3 with a 3.37 goals-against average lifetime at MSG.