Seventeen days after the NHL trade deadline, the Penguins will get the man they wanted.
As several folks in the organization have said, no player would be a better acquisition for a run at the Stanley Cup than center and team captain Sidney Crosby.
And that was before the team rang off nine wins in a row.
"Playing the way we are and then getting the best player in the world back [from injury] is not bad," right winger James Neal said in a purposeful understatement Tuesday after practice at Southpointe, moments after Crosby announced his intention to play Thursday in an Eastern Conference showdown against the Rangers in New York.
After months upon months of dealing with missing parts, including a handful of long-term injuries to key players, the Penguins' timing is taking a sharp turn for the better. They are getting Crosby back with 14 games left in the regular season, allowing time to work out line and power-play combinations and other details before the playoffs.
Defenseman Kris Letang, out the past five games because of symptoms associated with a concussion, is cleared for contact and could be back as soon as Thursday. Defenseman Paul Martin, out the past two games because of illness, expects to play Thursday.
In fact, every skater on the roster participated in a rigorous, 75-minute session. The only one missing was goaltender Brent Johnson, who has an unspecified injury.
"I don't know if I've seen the whole team healthy. Maybe for a couple of games," said Martin, who signed with the Penguins in July 2010.
Crosby and the team's other star centers, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, have missed significant time dating to the start of the 2010-11 season. Crosby has played in just eight games since Jan. 6, 2011 because of a concussion and neck injury. His short comeback lasted from Nov. 21 to Dec. 5, with two goals, 10 points.
He is symptom-free and said he has gotten all he can out of practices.
"Everything's gone really well," Crosby said.
Coach Dan Bylsma ended widespread speculation over how Crosby will be incorporated into the lineup.
On the top power-play unit, he is slated to move back to the point, leaving the forwards the same -- Malkin, Neal and Chris Kunitz. Letang or Steve Sullivan will man the other point, meaning the five-man unit will be all forwards if it's Sullivan.
"It's a different spot for me," Crosby said. "I've played there in juniors, so it's been a few years since I've been back there. But I like it. I think I'm able to see a lot of the ice there and I've got [Malkin] who has that big shot on the side wall.
"My job would be to try to distribute the puck amongst everyone, but, when [Malkin] is shooting the puck like that, just giving it to him in that area and letting him work there."
Malkin, with 84 points, led the NHL before the Tuesday games. His line with Neal and Kunitz has been strong, as has the second line with Staal centering for Sullivan and Pascal Dupuis.
Crosby has played a lot with Kunitz and Dupuis, but Thursday he will play between Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy, at least at the start.
Bylsma said using Crosby on a third, more defensive, line will help keep his playing time in the range of 15 minutes. When Crosby made his earlier comeback, playing with Kunitz and Dupuis, he logged 15:54 and made the most of it with two goals and two assists in a 5-0 win against the New York Islanders.
Kennedy played with Crosby some on the top power-play unit last season, but a five-on-five assignment is new and presents what Kennedy calls "a great challenge and an exciting challenge," namely "keeping up with him. He's got great speed. And you've always got to be ready for the puck. He's such a great player. He passes when no one else expects he's going to pass, so you've got to be ready."
Crosby's m.o. often is to create scoring chances off the rush, but it might be a little different on this line.
"We're going to try to move our feet and control the puck down low and generate some good chances, hopefully, off the cycle," he said.
As things unfold, Crosby also could play with Staal, another new wrinkle. Crosby has played with Malkin for short stints before but not much with Staal. Bylsma said either could play wing on such a line, with perhaps Dupuis or Sullivan.
Crosby has been skating for a while and got clearance for contact March 6. He says his condition is peak, and he has sparkled in practice, but any adjustments he will have to make to being back in the lineup will have to be on the fly.
The Penguins road trip consists of three games in four days --with matinees Saturday at New Jersey and Sunday at Philadelphia -- and all are against Atlantic Division rivals in contests that have playoff-seeding implications.
It's a good thing Crosby has been through this comeback thing before.
"Actually, I probably feel a little better -- just knowing what to expect," he said. "I think it's just easier going through it this time. I know what to expect.
"That first game [Nov. 21] was pretty overwhelming. It was a lot of fun. But that being said, I think I'll take it a little more in stride this time and make sure I'm getting better every game, but also try to pace myself a bit -- especially with the schedule."
For much more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Shelly Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org , 412-263-1721 or Twitter @pgshelly. First Published March 14, 2012 4:00 AM