Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero made a calculated gamble at the trade deadline to pass on adding major salary to keep cap space open for his captain Sidney Crosby to return during the regular season. Knowing the unpredictable nature of concussions and Crosby's recovery, there were no guarantees it would work out. There still aren't.
But Tuesday's news that Crosby is symptom-free and cleared for contact is huge news for the Penguins.
"It's a good step; hopefully we can keep the momentum here," he told reporters in Pittsburgh on Tuesday. "It's not fulfilling until you get out there."
His return to an actual game, which could happen as early as Sunday, would change everything in the Eastern Conference playoff race and into the postseason. He's the biggest name and could have the biggest impact on how the rest of the season plays out, but he's only the first of many important players whose injury status could impact tight races. If these five players get healthy and stay in their lineups, they could be the difference down the stretch and into the postseason. If they don't, playoff success might take a serious hit for their teams.
Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins: Even without Crosby, the Penguins are capable of making a playoff run thanks to the top line of Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Chris Kunitz. "They've led the way with the way they've played," Crosby said. "They're a tough line to stop. When they're going like that it doesn't matter who they're playing, they're going to create stuff." Now factor in Crosby's return, and there's potential for the Penguins to have two dominant lines.
Plus, Marc-Andre Fleury has been fantastic, with a .920 save percentage since the All-Star break. He has stopped 71 of his first 73 shots faced in March.
Crosby sounds like he's itching to get in the lineup and get his game back to what we all expect. "I know what I have to do to get ready," he said. "[I've] kind of gone through this once already this year -- know what to expect, know what to prepare for." If both Crosby and Kris Letang are in the lineup for the start of the playoffs, the Penguins would jump to the top of the list among Eastern Conference favorites.
Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks: As much as Crosby's every move has been analyzed, Toews' concussion has flown under the radar. But to the Blackhawks and the tight Central Division playoff race, his recovery is every bit as crucial as Crosby's. Toews didn't join the team on its road trip, and Tuesday's game in St. Louis was Chicago's eighth without Toews. It's time to be concerned. But according to the Chicago Sun-Times, Toews had a good day of off-ice workouts Monday and the team hopes he starts skating soon.
"I can't give you an ideal date, but today is encouraging," coach Joel Quenneville told Adam Jahns in St. Louis on Monday. But we learned with Crosby that until he's out there skating and symptom-free, it's almost impossible to put a timeline on it. This story will only get bigger with every game Toews misses.
Martin Havlat, San Jose Sharks: During their recent struggles, the Sharks have had issues scoring goals. Heading into Tuesday night's game, San Jose had just two goals in its last three games and are flirting dangerously close to a spot outside the top eight. Getting Havlat back will help. He is practicing with the team without restrictions and according to an NHL source, his return to the lineup "should be soon." The big issue for him will be conditioning since surgery to fix a torn hamstring kept him off the ice to allow time for healing. The positive is that, once Havlat is completely healed, there shouldn't be the lingering fear that can accompany other injuries like a concussion. Before his injury, Havlat had 15 points in his first 26 games with the Sharks.
Alex Steen, St. Louis Blues: This is another concussion that hasn't received the attention it deserves, especially considering Steen's strong start in which he scored 13 goals in 36 games for the Blues. According to an NHL source, Steen is still in California and there's no update in his concussion recovery. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Jeremy Rutherford reported in late February that Steen stopped practicing with the team to get treatment in a hyperbaric chamber in California.
"I'm trying to get myself back on track here," Steen told Rutherford. "It's hard to explain what I'm going through. ... I've tried everything in my power to get back on the ice." At that point, Steen remained hopeful that he might still return before the playoffs but he's running out of time. "There's no real timeline," he said. "As soon as I feel like I can play, I'll be out there."
Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals: Even if the Capitals find a way to make the playoffs without Backstrom, it's hard to imagine them winning a series unless their franchise center is in the lineup. And as of right now, that's starting to look like a long shot, since the symptoms from his concussion refuse to go away. He returned to Sweden to spend time with his family, The Washington Post reported earlier this week, which refuted earlier reports that he was there to see a specialist.
It's a similar strategy the team took with Mike Green, who spent time at home in Calgary last season while recovering from his concussion. Getting away may help, it may not. "There's no specific treatment everybody knows is going to work," said Crosby, who has become a bit of an expert on the subject. "You get to learn what's important, what you need and how you treat it."