Sidney Crosby’s return to the Penguins should scare the rest of the NHL

Sidney Crosby’s return to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Tuesday means the NHL’s scariest team just got a whole lot better.

The Pittsburgh Penguins are likely the luckiest hockey team on the planet this season. With the state of the team’s injury list that seems to grow by the day, Penguins fans would no doubt say their team is actually, in fact, the most unlucky. Or just cursed. Same difference, really, when you’re without your best player in Sidney Crosby.

However, given their current standings near the top of the NHL leaderboards, the more it seems as if the Penguins have gotten extremely, impossibly, indescribably … lucky.

Since Nov. 9, the Penguins have been missing Crosby due to core muscle surgery to repair a sports hernia he suffered in training camp. The original diagnosis had Crosby sidelined for a minimum of six weeks, when the reality was closing in on 10 weeks until the Penguins announced Tuesday that he’d be back in the lineup for the team’s game against the Minnesota Wild.

Crosby’s return had been hinted at for at least a week now, with the forward skating with the team regularly, though had declined to say when he’d be back officially. Tuesday marks 67 days — and 28 games — since Crosby last played with the Penguins in an official NHL game. In that time span? The Penguins have gone 18-6-4 without their captain in the lineup, moving from fifth in the conference to third, all the while being the NHL’s fourth best team in the standings in terms of overall points.

What the Penguins have done without Crosby in the lineup is stunning, to say the least. Pittsburgh, with a depleted lineup that has had Crosby, Evgeni MalkinJake Guentzel and Bryan Rust out for varying lengths of time this season, has managed to not only stabilize themselves, but climb up in the standings in a competitive Eastern Conference.

Losing your best player — and the glue that keeps your team together — for nearly a third of the season most often spells disaster for a hockey team. The Penguins, if they were any other hockey team, likely would have fallen apart completely a month ago with the amount of injuries they’ve sustained this season.

And yet, they’ve persisted and honestly, thrived, in this environment. The backbone of the Penguins this year has been goaltender Tristan Jarry, who has stepped up and overtaken previous phenomenon Matt Murray as the starting goaltender in Pittsburgh. Jarry has a .932 save percentage in 22 games played this season, and is playing himself into potential Vezina Trophy consideration with half a season to go.

The Penguins’ defense, what many would have considered the team’s overall weakness, is allowing only 29.7 shots per game, the fourth best in the NHL. In terms of special teams play, the Penguins are grading out about average this year, acceptable given their circumstances, but offensively are in the top 10 in terms of goals scored across the league.

The team has also been lead by unlikely heroes in Crosby’s absence, such as Rust, Jared McCannDominik Kahun and Teddy Blueger, players you’d be excused for knowing absolutely nothing about. Not only that, all of the Penguins’ unsung heroes this season are under 25 and are playing at or above a career-best pace.

All of this? Without Crosby in the lineup. And now, the Penguins have their captain — and arguably still the best player in the NHL — back on the ice for what seems to be the remainder of the season.

That is a scary thought, for the Metropolitan Division and the NHL at large. The Penguins have been defying the odds all season long and have looked good while doing so with players no one has ever heard of in the process. Though the Penguins have been unlucky in the injury department, it’s nearly assured that the team has some old voodoo blood magic on their side keeping them competitive as long as Crosby remains on the team’s payroll.

That, and hard work of course.

Crosby’s return to the Penguins’ lineup is no doubt a cause for celebration in the Greater Pittsburgh Region, but the rest of the NHL should absolutely be on alert now that the Penguins are approaching full strength.

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