PITTSBURGH — With Sidney Crosby back in the lineup for the first time this season on Tuesday night the Pittsburgh Penguins roster is starting to resemble the one that lifted the Stanley Cup four months ago.
About half way through their 3-2 win over the Florida Panthers, they finally started to look like that team on the ice, too.
Entering the game having lost three out of four (while looking quite bad and being outscored 15-7 in the process) it looked like that early season slump was going to continue on Tuesday when they faced a 2-0 deficit midway through the second period.
They looked sluggish. They couldn’t stay out of the penalty box. The Panthers were completely shutting the game down and had just put on a penalty killing clinic where they played a 40-second game of keep-away, sparking a chorus of boos from the home crowd.
And then Sidney Crosby showed up.
It was at that point that Crosby found himself wide open in the middle of the ice to accept a pass from Evgeni Malkin and rip it past Panthers goalie Jamies Reimer for his first goal of the year.
In the end, it was a typical night at the office for Crosby.
He scored a goal, was a possession-driving machine (better than 63 percent of the shot attempts with Crosby on the ice belonged to Pittsburgh) and finished with a team-leading four shots on goal and seven attempts.
But for his good as he was in his 2016-17 debut, the biggest impact his return had is it made once again made their lineup a nightmare to match up against.
The Penguins’ calling card in last year’s playoffs was their ability to play fast, and their deep, balanced attack that had four lines that could all contribute. It was a matchup problem that nobody could really handle as they kept rotating lines with Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel out one after another (not to mention a fourth line that has some scoring potential as well).
They obviously lose a lot of that advantage when Crosby is out of the lineup and teams only really have two big-time scoring threats to worry about.
On Tuesday, you could see it eventually start to become an issue for the Panthers as the Penguins received goals from three different lines in the win.
After Crosby scored to get the Penguins on the board, Carl Hagelin scored his first of the season to tie the game five minutes into the third period. Then fourth line provided the winner four minutes later when Eric Fehr finished a perfect pass from Tom Kuhnhackl.
Even with the win on Tuesday and a 4-2-1 start to the season it is still pretty clear the Penguins have some things to work through and are not quite where they need to be at this point. They have to cut down on the penalties. They really haven’t played a complete 60-minute game yet. The HBK line (which was broken up in the third period against Florida) has not really clicked the way it did in the playoffs. Kris Letang is still injured. But on Tuesday you started to see flashes of what made the team such a force in the playoffs.
With Crosby back on the ice and extending the lineup, you might start to see it happen a little more often.