SPOTLIGHT: COMINGS AND GOINGS

Bruce BerletBY: Bruce Berlet

It’s official.

Sid “The Kid” Crosby will be returning AGAIN in the world’s biggest media center.

Crosby, who has been battling the effects of post-concussion syndrome for more than 14 months, will be back in the Pittsburgh Penguins’ lineup Thursday night when they visit Madison Square Garden to face the New York Rangers, whom they’re frantically pursuing for the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference titles.

Crosby, who has two goals and 10 assists while playing in only eight games this season, revealed he would be returning after a Tuesday practice in which he was on the third line with rugged wings Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy. Coach Dan Bylsma kept together his top lines of Chris Kunitz-Evgeni Malkin-James Neal and Steve Sullivan-Jordan Staal-Pascal Dupuis.

“I feel good, and the plan is to play Thursday,” Crosby told the Pittsburgh media.

Crosby also worked at the point during power plays drills in which Kris Letang, the standout defenseman who has also missed five games with concussion-like symptoms, manned the other point. Crosby previously played mostly on the same half-wall position where Malkin, the NHL’s leading scorer, has been playing this season.

This will be Crosby’s second comeback of the season and comes in one of the NHL’s biggest games of the season. The Penguins have won nine in a row to close to within four points of the Rangers, who hosted the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday night.

After missing the final 41 games of last season and the Stanley Cup playoffs with a concussion that developed after he was hit hard in successive games in January 2011, Crosby sat out the first 20 games of this season. He made a memorable return against the New York Islanders on Nov. 21, scoring twice and setting up two more goals in a 5-1 victory. He had eight assists, but no more goals, in the next seven games before the concussion symptoms returned, and he has not played since.

Crosby was cleared for contact a week ago and returned to practice, but he didn’t think he had absorbed enough contact in drills to play Sunday against the Bruins. Now, he’s ready to go again, and adding the former Art Ross and Hart Award winner to what already is the NHL’s hottest team makes the Penguins one of the Stanley Cup favorites. They have not advanced past the Eastern Conference semifinals since winning the cup in 2009.

If Crosby can play the rest of the Penguins’ games, he will get in 14 games before the playoffs, including six against the Rangers, Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers. The Penguins have three games left against the Flyers.

AVERY RETIRED?

While Crosby is on his way back, Sean Avery’s career is apparently done.

The fiery left wing told a live viewing audience during the online “After Show” segment of Bravo TV’s “Watch What Happens Live” that he was calling it quits. His announcement came after the show’s host, Andy Cohen, asked a viewer question about his future.

“Sean, what are your thoughts about your hockey future?” Cohen said.

The 31-year-old Avery lounged back in his chair and said: “I am officially retired; I threw my skates in the Hudson [River].”

Avery did not dispute what he told Cohen to Andrew Gross of The Record and Herald News in New Jersey via text message Tuesday. But Avery added he would/could not make an official announcement until his four-year, $15.5 million deal expires April 15. As Avery told Gross, he does “still have a job” even if he wasn’t on the Whale’s “Clear Day” list announced last Tuesday, making him ineligible for the rest of the season or playoffs, and has been told by the Rangers not to bother to report to the Whale. Avery obviously wants to still get his paychecks for what will be his final NHL contract and has not filed any retirement papers with the NHL. Avery has numerous interests outside of hockey and is exploring possible post-hockey business opportunities.

This ends a tumultuous final season with the Rangers and Whale. After being waived by the Rangers early in the season, Avery was assigned to the Whale before re-joining New York on Nov. 5. In 15 games with the Rangers, he had three goals and 21 penalty minutes. In seven games during two stints with the Whale, he had two goals, one assist and 39 PIMs but had been a healthy scratch for 18 consecutive games since Jan. 27.

In 580 games in 10 seasons with Rangers, Dallas Stars, Los Angeles Kings and Detroit Red Wings, Avery has 90 goals, 157 assists and 1,533 PIMs. His most productive season was 2006-07, when he had 18 goals, 30 assists and 174 PIM in 84 games with the Kings and Rangers.

WHALE, SOUND TIGERS RESUME RIVALRY FRIDAY NIGHT

The Whale and Bridgeport Sound Tigers, tied for the Northeast Division lead, renew their spirited rivalry Friday night at the XL Center in the start of the Whale’s five-game homestand, tying a season high.

It will be the ninth of 10 meetings in the GEICO Connecticut Cup series in which the Sound Tigers are 5-1-1-1, though three of their wins have come in overtime or a shootout.

The Sound Tigers (32-20-3-5) were in the division cellar after a 2-10-0-1 slide from Thanksgiving to the end of 2011, but a staggering 20-2-0-2 run vaulted them into first place before they lost three straight last weekend for the first time this season, the first two via shootouts, starting against the Whale.

The Whale (31-20-5-5) had a six-point division lead entering 2012 before an 11-game winless streak (0-6-3-2) in January dropped them behind the Sound Tigers. But the Whale has rallied with a 12-4-1-0 record to tie the Sound Tigers, who have a game in hand and own the first tie-breaker, which is most non-shootout wins (28-25).

The closeness of the two teams doesn’t end there either as the Sound Tigers have scored only three more goals than the Whale (185-182) while allowing only four more (173-169). And each team has a goalie named Reebok/AHL Goaltender of the Month, the Whale’s Chad Johnson in October and the Sound Tigers’ Anders Nilsson in February. Johnson was called up by the Rangers on Tuesday to back up Martin Biron because Henrik Lundqvist has the flu.

The Whale is 3-0-0-1 in four home games against the Sound Tigers, including last Friday night, when Kris Newbury scored a sixth-attacker goal with 4.9 seconds left in regulation before Johnson stopped three shots in a shootout while All-Star Mats Zuccarello, Casey Wellman and Brendan Bell were scoring for the Whale for a 4-3 win.

But after playing with as many eight players on professional tryout contracts because of injuries and call-ups, the Sound Tigers are nearly whole as Nilsson and rugged wing Michael Haley were reassigned by the parent New York Islanders on Monday and captain Jeremy Colliton could return from an injury. The only players on the Sound Tigers’ “Clear Day” list still with the Islanders are All-Star wing David Ullstrom and center Casey Cizikas.

The Whale could be without Zuccarello, who was called up by the Rangers on Sunday morning while eating breakfast in Manchester, N.H., and had an assist and helped set up Marian Gaborik’s winner in a 4-3 overtime victory over the Islanders. Gaborik’s goal was the Rangers’ third on the power play, which was helped immensely by the return of Zuccarello, who played more than six of his 101/2 minutes on the power play while filling in for former Wolf Pack wing and captain Ryan Callahan, sidelined by a sore foot after being hit by a shot.

“I thought he brought something we know he has, the creativity of the game,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said of Zuccarello. “He’s very well liked in the locker room, very well respected in our locker room. He brings a creativity. He sees the ice. It’s a gift that he has.”

Tortorella said he would try to play Zuccarello more at even strength after pointing out last season that Zuccarello made plays others on the team wouldn’t think about.

“Skill and work ethic are two things that Zuccarello has, and they are the key parts of his game,” Tortorella said. “I was hearing from a lot of people saying that John Tortorella ‘hated’ him and didn’t want him on the team, and I think that’s the complete opposite. Until Ryan Callahan got hurt, no one in the top six had missed any significant time and there wasn’t really a need for Zucc. The GAS line (Gaborik-Artem Anisimov-Derek Stepan) was carrying the offense, and the Rangers had four lines that all had roles and were performing them. Now with the team in a little rut, couple with the injury to Cally, Zucc gets his chance. As long as he is making things happen on the ice, he will have a spot in the lineup.”

Cizikas (15 goals, 29 assists, plus-25 in 51 games) is the Sound Tigers’ leading scorer, followed by defenseman Matt Donovan (7, 28), right wing Rhett Rakhshani (13, 21 in only 35 games with a six-game point streak), left wing Justin DiBenedetto (17, 12), Colliton (11, 16) and Ullstrom (19, 4). Nilsson (15-6-2, 2.32 goals-against average, .925 save percentage, one shutout) and Kevin Poulin (17-15-3, 2.94, .903, two shutouts) are the goalies.

Newbury (21, 32) is the Whale’s leading scorer, followed by All-Star rookie forward Jonathan Audy-Marchessault (20, 31), Wellman (20, 17, including six goals and six assists in 12 games with the Whale), right wing Andre Deveaux (19, 18), Zuccarello (12, 24) and defensemen Tim Erixon (2, 30) and Bell (7, 23). Audy-Marchessault leads the Whale in scoring against the Sound Tigers with six goals and four assists. Johnson (20-13-5, 2.36, .922, one shutout) has started the last eight games and 15 of the last 17 while Cam Talbot (11-12-0, 2.92, .904, two shutouts) has backed up.

Five-thousand fans will receive the third and final set of Whale trading cards, sponsored by Webster Bank, of Deveaux, Wellman, Erixon, Scott Tanski, Pavel Valentenko and coach Ken Gernander on a Hartford Wolf Pack card. Valentenko could return after missing two games with an injury sustained last Friday night.

Despite the importance of Friday’s game, the Whale also has key conference games against Springfield on Saturday night and Portland on Sunday afternoon. The Whale had won seven in a row at home before a 3-1 loss Saturday night to the Norfolk Admirals, who went to Bridgeport the next afternoon and beat the Sound Tigers, 6-3. Despite the loss to the Admirals, the Whale still has the AHL’s best home winning percentage at .714 (17-5-2-4).

Entering the 12th and final meeting with their I-91 rival, the Whale is 7-3-0-1 against the Falcons (28-28-3-3), including 3-1-0-1 at the XL Center. But Springfield won the last meeting 2-0 on Feb. 25 at the MassMutual Center behind 30 saves by former UMass standout Paul Dainton, the Falcons’ only shutout this season and the first time the Whale had been blanked since the second game of the season

The Falcons have lost five of six (1-3-1-1) and play Portland and Providence before visiting the Whale. They have struggled since All-Star wing Cam Atkinson, a Greenwich native and former standout at Avon Old Farms and Boston College, was called up by the parent Columbus Blue Jackets on Feb. 27, and former Wolf Pack captain Dane Byers was recalled on Saturday.

Former All-Star center Martin St. Pierre (10, 46) leads the Falcons in scoring, followed by former Wolf Pack wing Alexandre Giroux (23, 25), Atkinson (29, 15), Byers (14, 16), center Matt Calvert (13, 13), defenseman Brent Regner (2, 23) and center Nick Drazenovic (6, 18 in only 28 games). Drazenovic is one of numerous players the Falcons have been without for long stretches because of injuries or call-ups. Audy-Marchessault has a stunning six goals and 13 assists in 11 games the Falcons, while Giroux leads the active Falcons in scoring against the Whale with six goals and three assists. Dainton (10-8-1, 2.90, .896, one shutout) and 39-year-old Manny Legace (11-17-1, 2.83, .903), the Hartford Whalers’ eighth-round pick in 1993, have handled most of the goaltending.

Five-thousand fans will receive green Whale koozies, courtesy of Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over.

Entering the sixth of eight meetings with Portland, the Whale is 2-2-1 against the Pirates, winning in overtime and regulation at the XL Center. The Pirates (28-27-3-3), who are fourth in the Atlantic Division and two points out of an Eastern Conference playoff spot, are led by All-Star left wing Brett Sterling, who has 24 goals and 27 assists, including two goals and one assist in four games with Portland after the St. Louis Blues loaned him from the Peoria Rivermen for former All-Star wing Patrick Sullivan. At the same time, goalie Peter Mannino and forward Kenndal McArdle were loaned to Portland from St. John’s for All-Star center Brock Trotter, the Pirates’ leading scorer who was injured and has yet to play. Sterling is followed in scoring by rookie center Andy Miele (11, 32), the Hobey Baker Award winner last year at Miami of Ohio, right wing Brett MacLean (18, 17), defenseman Nathan Oystrick (10, 21) and right wings Matt Watkins (9, 21) and Ryan Duncan (14, 15). Erixon leads the Whale in scoring against the Pirates with five assists, while Miele has seven assists against the Whale. Mannino (5-6-0, 2.99, .909, one shutout) and Justin Pogge (13-13-3, 3.25, .883) are the Pirates’ goalies after Curtis McIlhinney was injured and traded to Columbus as part of the trade that sent veteran center Antoine Vermette to Phoenix.

Fans are encouraged to bring their skates for a postgame skate.

ADMIRALS’ JOHNSON NAMED PLAYER OF THE WEEK

Admirals center Tyler Johnson was named the Reebok/AHL Player of the Week on Monday after getting four goals and four assists in three wins that extended their winning streak to 15 games, two shy of the AHL record.

Johnson was especially important in games against Connecticut’s two AHL entries, assisting on the winning goal by Mike Kostka and scoring into empty net in the win over the Whale before getting a goal and three assists to extend his personal scoring streak to seven games (six goals, nine assists) against the Sound Tigers.

Johnson, a 21-year-old native of Spokane, Wash., has 24 goals and 28 assists in 62 games, ranking third among AHL rookies. He was signed as a free agent by the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 7, 2011 after playing four season with Spokane in the Western Hockey League, winning a Memorial Cup in 2008, and helping the United States capture a gold medal in the 2010 World Junior Championships.

The Admirals’ 15-game winning streak is the third longest in the AHL since the Admirals joined the league in 2000-01. It’s the longest winning streak in the AHL since the Syracuse Crunch won an AHL-record 18 straight regular-season games from March 9 to Oct. 17, 2008. During the Crunch’s streak, they won 15 games to end the 2007-08 regular season and three games to begin the 2008-09 season. The longest AHL winning streak in a season was the 17 in a row the Philadelphia Phantoms won from Oct. 22 to Nov. 27, 2004.

The Admirals have set a franchise record with eight consecutive road victories, passing the previous mark of seven from Dec. 29, 2002 to Feb. 7, 2003. Their last loss was 4-2 at Springfield on Feb. 5.

Former Hartford Wolf Pack left wing/enforcer Steve MacIntyre was suspended for four games Tuesday for his actions in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s 4-3 shootout victory at Springfield on Sunday. Late in the second period, MacIntyre precipitated and continued a melee, including attacking Dainton, and received a two-minute minor for cross-checking, five-minute major for elbowing and 10-minute match penalty for attempt to deliberately injure.

The 6-foot-5, 250-pound MacIntyre will miss games Wednesday at Norfolk and Saturday, Sunday and March 23 at home against Worcester, Binghamton and Adirondack. He has no points and 55 penalty minutes in 18 games with the Penguins and is scoreless with four PIMs in 11 NHL games with Pittsburgh this season.

ODDS AND ENDBOARDS

College students can get discounted Whale tickets to weekday games with a “Ditch the Dorms” deal. For Monday through Friday games, students who show a valid student ID at the Public Power Ticket office can get $2 off upper-level tickets and $5 off lower-level seats.

Fans can bid on AHL All-Star Classic jerseys, helmets, gloves and pucks at www.theahl.com. Zuccarello, Audy-Marchessault and Atkinson were on the Eastern Conference team, which was captained by former Wolf Pack left wing Boyd Kane, captain of the Hershey Bears.

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