Crosby hasn't played in almost a year due to concussion-like symptoms suffered back in January and the Penguins took an ample amount time to make sure their top player was ready for action. Crosby was unsure when and if he would return after leading the Penguins in points last year with 66 in just 41 games. He never returned to action after January 5, when he took a hit from Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman. Crosby had also absorbed a hard check to the head a few days earlier in the Winter Classic against Washington.
The NHL has toughened its stance on hits to the head and it would have been a huge loss to the league if Crosby was unable to return to the sport he dominates. The talented 24-year-old was cleared for contact by doctors back in October and has been traveling with the Penguins this season.
"We know how badly he wants to play," Pens forward Matt Cooke said. "We want it too, because it means that he's healthy, and that's all you ever really want for him."
According to head coach Dan Bylsma, Crosby will play with linemates Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis and his ice time will be monitored. Bylsma said he won't see his usual 20-plus minutes of action like before and jokingly added the team may have to tie him to the bench. The former MVP's conditioning level will also be in question when he dusts off the skates.
"There will be some time before he totally feels comfortable and back to the level that he was playing when he went on that point streak and those games when he was at that level," Bylsma said Sunday. "It's easy to see in practice that he's the best player on the ice with his speed and the way he plays the game. He'll bring that to the game tomorrow. It'll take some time."
Bylsma's club has lost two straight and three of four games, including Saturday's 3-2 loss at Florida in which Jordan Staal and Kunitz each registered goals and goaltender Brent Johnson made 28 saves.
Marc-Andre Fleury could return to the crease tonight for the Penguins, who have won five straight games on home ice and are 6-1-1 as the host. Pittsburgh is tied with Washington for the third-most home points (13) in the Eastern Conference, trailing only Boston (16) and Toronto (14), and sits even with Philadelphia atop the Atlantic Division with 25 total points.
Pittsburgh has outscored the opposition, 18-8, during the current home winning streak. It will open a three-game homestand tonight versus the Isles, Blues and Senators.
Penguins center Jordan Staal owns nine goals and 12 points since Oct. 15 and is riding a four-game points streak. Defenseman Zbynek Michalek is two games short of 500 in his career and blueliner Paul Martin is three shy of 500 career contests.
After a 3-1 start to the season, the Islanders have lost 11 of their last 13 games and are shooting for their first road win of the season (0-4-2).
The Islanders were hammered, 6-0, versus Boston on Saturday in the finale of a three-game homestand (1-2), as Rick DiPietro allowed three goals on 13 shots in the first period. Anders Nilsson took over in a scoreless second period, then gave up three goals on 11 shots in the final stanza.
"There were some guys that cared on the bench tonight, but the emotion was down, fragile," New York head coach Jack Capuano said. "And you know what? You gotta battle through it."
New York possesses an Eastern Conference-low 13 points and forward Matt Moulson saw his team season-high five-game point streak come to an end. Moulson's games-played streak stands at 181.
The Islanders are struggling in the third period lately, having been outscored by a 13-1 margin in that time over the past six contests. They have been outscored 24-8 overall in the final period.
The Islanders have lost both meetings with the Penguins this season and 10 of the previous 12 matchups between the teams. New York has lost 12 in a row at Pittsburgh, which is 17-2-2 in the last 21 games against the Islanders, only losing twice in regulation during that span.