Crosby's return shifts the East

As Sidney Crosby returns to the ice, Eastern Division foes are readying themselves. Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

BOCA RATON, Fla. -- The anticipated Thursday return of Sidney Crosby impacts two opposing franchises more than any others -- the Philadelphia Flyers and New York Rangers. Pittsburgh has suddenly pulled within four points of the stumbling Rangers while the Flyers have been battling to keep pace in the Atlantic.

But in speaking with general managers of both teams, it's clear the bigger picture is the focus rather than what it means to their franchises. The bottom line is that the league is a better place when Crosby is playing.

"The fact that they're adding Sidney is good for the league," Flyers GM Paul Holmgren said. "It's good for them. It doesn't change the fact that we have to play them three times and try to win."

Said Rangers GM Glen Sather: "He's a great player. It's great for the league. It's great for Pittsburgh. He's the best player in the world."

And adding the best player in the world into the middle of a playoff race changes things dramatically in the Eastern Conference. The Pittsburgh Penguins have won nine consecutive games without Crosby. Now he's back and based on how he played earlier this season when he returned, it shouldn't take long for him to get his game where we're used to seeing it.

I spoke with Penguins GM Ray Shero on Monday and asked him if he has allowed himself to envision just how good a healthy, full roster would look in the first round of the playoffs. He's still not quite ready to do that.

"As soon as you think that, something else happens," Shero said. "Starting with the Rangers game, we have a lot of games in a short amount of days to finish up the season. A lot can happen."

And that's the fear with Crosby. It's great news for the Penguins and the league that he has returned, but you never know how long it's going to last. There's a bit more certainty since his neck injury was discovered this time around, but Penguins fans will no doubt cringe every time he takes a hit.

But if he stays healthy and Kris Letang can get back on the ice, this Penguins team is arguably better than the one that won a Stanley Cup, at least on paper. Especially considering that a maturing Evgeni Malkin has made serious strides as a player this season and is on his way to a Hart Trophy.

Shero saw a motivated Malkin in training camp; that motivation hasn't wavered and it shouldn't with the playoffs in sight.

"He's really focused. He's more focused," Shero said. "He plays a tough game. He's a tough guy to play against. Everyone sees the graceful goals but he's a bull. He's playing with an attitude and great deal of will along with the great skill he has. It's a great combination."

So is the trio of Crosby, Malkin and Jordan Staal centering Pittsburgh's top three lines once again, starting Thursday in New York? Shero doesn't envision Dan Bylsma breaking up the Malkin line, suggesting that Crosby will play with Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke. If Pittsburgh remains healthy, the Penguins immediately become the favorite to emerge from the East. There's an argument to be made that they jump to the front of the line as the Stanley Cup favorite.

"You have to be lucky to win. You look at Boston last year, look at us," Shero said. "There's certain points in every playoff series you're close to being out. You get that overtime goal, you get that bounce off a leg and that series turns around. You have to be lucky, maybe more importantly you have to be good."