Reporting Colin Dunlap
Let’s get ahead of ourselves here.
Play the what-if game with me for a moment.
OK, here we go …
With the Penguins dominating the New York Islanders, 5-0, in Game 1 of the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs on Wednesday, it was strikingly obvious that the Penguins — if they continue such a level of play — are eons above their brethren from Long Island.
Even without the services of Sidney Crosby, who has been out since March 30 after taking an errant shot to his mush, the Penguins are far superior.
Got that? The Penguins are far superior. The divide in talent is vast; it is why one team roared through a month of the regular season unbeaten and the other won just half its games, gaining entry into the playoffs because we live in this (almost) everyone-makes-the-playoffs era in the NHL.
What if the Penguins win on Friday night in much the same way (and Crosby still has yet to return) in a dominating, convincing, undoubted victory over the Islanders?
What if the Penguins take a 2-0 series lead and the aggregate goal advantage is 10-1 or 9-0 or something of the sort?
Would it really be necessary for Crosby to come back as soon as he’s ready?
Would it be essential to have him back in the Islanders series as a mechanism to get him ready and well-oiled for a jaunt through the rest of the bracket?
On Thursday at practice, Crosby was skating with some of the top lines, stamping home that he is inching closer and closer to a return.
But, I’m on the fence for bringing him back for Game 3 if Crosby doesn’t play in Game 2 and the Penguins continue to show the domination they showed in the opener.
I would probably, just as soon, see the best player in the world funnel all his efforts toward getting ready to play in the next round.
Here’s where I’m not on the fence: If the Penguins make the series 3-0 in their favor, and Crosby has yet to play, to me it would be silly to risk having Crosby out there for what would, essentially, be a formality.
Some will hold steadfast to the adage that when he’s ready to play he plays; when Sid is cleared, he should be out there the very next game, whether it is a Game 7, or an impending sweep of the Islanders.
But this is a special case, not one that can be handled in some paint-by-numbers form.
First, this is a guy who has had a debilitating injury that took an exorbitant amount of time to return to action from.
Next, this is an extreme talent. No, it isn’t hyperbole to call Sidney Crosby the best in the world because, well, he is.
And, lastly, this is a team that has an embarrassment of riches, perhaps the greatest assemblage of talent ever put together in one season in Penguins sweaters. They can, have and will win a lot of games with or without Sidney Crosby.
Certainly, many will disagree. The pervasive thought from the hockey-watching masses almost surely will be that Crosby should return to the Penguins lineup just as soon as doctors green-light him.
From this view, however, I’m not so sure. There’s a big part of me that feels as if the Penguins would be wise to integrate Crosby back into the lineup when it is necessary, not just when the doctors say he’s capable.
This Stanley Cup playoff march is — pardon the cliché — a marathon and not a sprint.
If the Penguins can breeze through the Islanders with the ease in which they showed on Wednesday night, perhaps it might be best, in an effort to meet the long-term objective, to shelf Crosby until next series.
Or, only play him against the Islanders if it is truly necessary.
Former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Sports Writer Colin Dunlap is the featured columnist at CBSPittsburgh.com. He can also be heard weeknights from 10 p.m. -2 a.m. on Sports Radio 93-7 “The Fan.” You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.