PITTSBURGH — Dan Bylsma promised to keep Sidney Crosby’s minutes under control as his star center eased his way back into the lineup following a three-month layoff.
It might be time to take the shackles off.
Crosby collected five assists during Pittsburgh’s three-game road trip through New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia that saw the Penguins pull within a point of the Eastern Conference-leading Rangers with three weeks to go in the season.
Flashing the speed and playmaking that made him the best player in the world before concussion-like symptoms in January 2011 sidelined him for basically 14 months, Crosby skated a combined 49 minutes over four days as Pittsburgh extended its winning streak to 11 straight before falling in the final second of overtime to the Flyers on Sunday.
The former MVP hardly seemed taxed by the workload, his No. 87 a blur during the extra session.
“He looked good, had some jump,” Bylsma said. “You saw that right through the overtime. He had a couple of good opportunities there.”
Crosby came within inches of scoring for the first time since Nov. 21 in the extra period, but his wrister sailed just wide of the net as his goalless streak extended to 10 games, the longest of his career. He is hardly frustrated though considering the way the Penguins are playing.
Paired with Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy on the third line, Crosby’s presence has opened up space for his linemates. Cooke scored two goals in New Jersey to give the former agitator a career-best 16 on the season while Kennedy — who never met a shot he didn’t like to take — managed to fire it at the net nine times in 26 minutes of playing time over the weekend.
Bylsma plans to experiment with his lineup over the next two weeks to figure out where Crosby will best fit, though it’s obvious Crosby’s singular talents will have an impact no matter who is skating beside him. Following the most trying stretch of his career, Crosby is hardly picky. He’s simply happy to be rid of the symptoms that wreaked havoc with his life for more than a year.
Though drained a bit by the cramped schedule, Crosby is pleased with his progress.
“I just want to make sure that I am getting better and feeling better each game,” Crosby said. “I think as a group we played really well here in the last few. Most of the time we’ve done some really good things. So, we just want to keep building off that.”
The Penguins picked up five of a possible six points during the road trip and begin a user-friendly stretch at home on Tuesday against Winnipeg. Pittsburgh plays seven of its final 11 games at Consol Energy Center, including visits by the Devils, Flyers and Rangers.
Still, despite ripping off the longest winning streak of the season, the Penguins weren’t thrilled with the way their run came to an end. Pittsburgh has been lights out when leading by two goals this season and dictated the pace for long stretches on Sunday before Philadelphia roared back in the third period then earned the extra point with 1 second left in overtime.
“We’re not going to walk away feeling like we pat ourselves on the back for the road trip,” Bylsma said. “We wanted to come in here and beat Philadelphia as well but we let that slip away the second half of the game.”
The frenetic action could be a preview of the opening round of the playoffs. If the Penguins or Flyers don’t catch the Rangers they’re almost certain to face each other in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
Despite Philadelphia’s spirited rally, the Flyers understand with Crosby back, Pittsburgh is arguably the best team in the league.
“I’m not taking anything away from them, they’ve got a great team, a great lineup, a great goalie and whatever,” Philadelphia defenseman Kimmo Timonen said. “Obviously, they don’t win 11 or 12 games for nothing. They’re a really good team.”
One that is hoping to kickstart another run against the Jets. Bylsma praised his team’s focus for a three-week stretch that saw the Penguins nearly erase New York’s once seemingly invincible division lead.
“You know during the streak you probably couldn’t have told our team we were on a streak,” Bylsma said. “We just picked up and go to the next game.”
And the next game only gets bigger from here.