Tuesdays With Stoosh: 3.29

Saturday night, the Pens will line up in front of what will likely be about 5,000 fans to take the opening faceoff against the Florida Panthers.  It will mark the start of the 79th game of the regular season, the final stretch run and warm up for the playoffs.  It will also be precisely three months and one day since this:

(God, it still sucks to look at that.)
A week from tonight, the Pens will play their final regular season home game, a sure-to-be doozy against the New Jersey Trapping Lemaires.  It’ll be exactly three months to the date from this:


The following morning, the Pittsburgh hockey media dropped the hammer.
It made you want to throw up your breakfast.
We were 41 games into the season.  The team had been rolling from mid-November all the way through Christmas.  Sure, there was a bit of a post-Christmas bump in the road, culminating in that craptastic Winter Classic.  But that was rectified with that drubbing of Tampa on Consol ice on January 5.  Staal was back.  Everyone looked mostly healthy.  Or so we thought.
So here we are now, approaching three months and nearly 40 games later.  The Pens have been to hell and back.  For every high – winning eight of nine sandwiched around the All-Star break, Johnny one-punching DiPietro, wins now in four straight – there have been even more crippling lows – the 2/11 debacle on Long Island, the season-ending injury to Malkin, plus long-term injuries to Orpik, Letestu, Asham, Tangradi, so many others.
Through all of that – losses of Crosby, Malkin and so many other members of the supporting cast it saw the team ice six forwards for a handful of February games that were regulars all year in Wilkes-Barre – the Pens persevered somehow.  Somehow this team has managed to get it done.  
Fleury has put together the season of his life – posting a career low goals-against average and nearly a career-low save percentage.  
You know it.  Hat tip again to PuckHuffers for the inspiration.
The defense has meshed.  Goals came from unlikely sources.  Tyler Kennedy turned himself into a potential 20-goal scorer (he’s got 18).  Kunitz channeled his inner Rick Tocchet.   Neal and Kovalev have been huge helping to steal overtime and shootout points.  Zbynek Michalek turned into Bobby Orr for a few games in the offensive zone.  Every night, it seemed to be someone else.  It wasn’t always pretty; more often than not, it was mostly ugly compared to what we’ve sometimes been used to, or maybe perhaps spoiled by.
But as the cliché goes, they never ask how.  They just ask how many.
So here sit the Penguins, entering tonight’s game against the Flyers with 98 points, 43 of which they’ve taken since Crosby last played and 26 since also losing Malkin for the year.
Somehow, tonight, with a regulation win, they can pull even with the Flyers for 100 points, placing them in a virtual tie for the Atlantic Division and – more importantly – the top seed in the Eastern Conference title.  
Sure there are tiebreakers at play, along with a handful of more games to play. And yes, the Flyers have a couple of games in hand on the Pens.  But that’s where this gets interesting.
The Flyers will pick up one of those games in hand this Friday night against the Trapping Lemaires.  By Sunday night, the teams will have pulled even, each having played 79 games.  They each play next Tuesday and Friday.  Philly then closes out its season at home against Trevor Gillies and the Islanders.
Flyers? Islanders? Someone say something about wretched hives of scum & villany?
THAT happens next Saturday, April 9.
And THAT means the Pens have the game in hand, closing things out the following afternoon in Atlanta.
Not getting ahead of ourselves here.  Anything other than a non-regulation win tomorrow makes this all pretty much go up in smoke and we’re pretty much looking at the fourth seed.
But two months ago, as Malkin was dragging himself off Consol ice with two blown-own knee ligaments & Crosby was paying his February rent on that place in Concussionville, who honestly thought that this Pens team had a chance to be where it is right now, within two points of the top seed in the Eastern Conference?
I don’t think the Flyers did.
Hopefully those “See Ya Sidney” two-packs sold well.
Because, um…
First off, your obligatory disclaimers.  
Crosby hasn’t officially been cleared to return yet.  And even if he is before the end of this season, it remains to be seen how well he handles contact.  
IF he’s cleared to return, he’ll resume practicing with the team and getting into game situations, mostly non-contact, to make sure he can deal with the pace and the environment.  They’ll likely give him about a week or so of that before advancing him to the point of being able to take contact in practice.  If that goes well over the course of another week or so, THEN we can start really talking about a return to an actual game.
So when you add it up, IF he gets back on into a game this year, it LIKELY won’t happen until the playoffs.  There just may not be enough time left in the regular season to get him back on the ice in a game before that and ensure that he’s progressing through each of those phases without the symptoms returning.
But it’s great that we’re even discussing this as a possibility again.  After weeks upon weeks of little to no tangible news (because his symptoms hadn’t improved) and pretty much everyone starting to quietly accept the idea that we wouldn’t see Crosby on the ice again until training camp in September, this is like Christmas as the playoffs loom.  If nothing else, his potential return to the ice would be the best pre-playoff acquisition pretty much ever for the Penguins, or at least up there with Ron Francis, Rick Tochhet and the return of Lemieux in 2000-01. 
And yes, there’s risk.
As it became apparent that Crosby was making significant progress and that a return this year could be possible, there remains some well-founded concern that he may be returning too soon.  It is a legitimate concern, especially as we see what continues to happen with Marc Savard and knowing that his situation was unfortunately compounded in part by the hit Matt Cooke laid on him (Savard had battled a few other concussions over the course of his career as well).
But that’s the thing about concussions.  There’s really no way to tell what constitutes “too soon”.  After the symptoms go away and stay away for about a week, the player tends to resume skating and light workouts.  As long as the symptoms don’t come back, the workouts steadily get ramped up.  As long as the symptoms don’t come back, it’s one day at a time and one workout at a time.  As long as the symptoms don’t come back.
It’s probably a safe bet that the Penguins have been ultra-careful with Crosby through every stage of this process.  This is their franchise player.  There isn’t a concussion an NHL player has ever suffered that’s been discussed and analyzed and picked over like Crosby’s, and that’s just by the media.  You can bet that the team has taken the utmost care and worked with the doctors to ensure that his long-term health has not been put in any more danger than necessary to this point.  He wouldn’t be out there skating and training if this wasn’t moving forward and he wasn’t capable of coming back soon.
Whether it happens in a regular season game yet this year, Game One of the first round of the playoffs, the season opener next year or fifty games into next season, there’s always going to be that chance that someone is going to catch him the wrong way.  Look at the two hits that caused all this, especially Hedman’s.  Everyone was always worried about some noted punk like Pronger or Downie (not that HE hasn’t tried), or some maniac like Gillies. In the end, it turned out to be a relatively freakish collision with David Steckel and a boarding hit by Victor Hedman that certainly didn’t look incredibly violent.
Sid’s eventually going to be back and he’s eventually going to take that first hit in a game and we’re all going to hold our breath.  You.  Me.  Bylsma.  Shero.  Mario.  And especially Sid.  And we’re probably all going to do it the second time he gets hit.  And the third.  And that first time someone brings their arms up just a little too high on him. It’s going to happen. It’s part of the game – part that is hopefully changing, but still part of the game nonetheless. You can’t eliminate the entire risk of contact. You can’t skate him out there in a plastic bubble.
He’s progressed to this point without a return of the symptoms.  And the only way to tell if he’s ready & able to deal with it is to get him on the ice and see how he responds to more situations. This same sort of process worked in the past with guys like David Booth and Patrice Bergeron, and both players have been doing well since their respective returns. It appears to be working out here as well.
The minute his agent spoke up and refuted those ridiculous retirement rumors, the die was cast.  At some point, Crosby would be back.  At some point, Crosby would assume that risk.  
At some point, it would be time for Crosby to be a hockey player again.