TAMPA, Fla. - Sidney Crosby missed scoring chance after scoring chance before finally setting up Maxime Talbot for the game's first goal with only 2:47 remaining. The Pittsburgh star made a dazzling return in his first game in 6 1/2 weeks, leading the Penguins' 2-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Tuesday night.
Marc-Andre Fleury, in only his second start following his own extended injury layoff with a bad ankle, made 35 saves in his first shutout since Nov. 24. Evgeni Malkin, edging to within a point of the NHL scoring lead, scored into an empty net with 5 seconds remaining.
But it was Crosby's night. The reigning NHL scoring champion and MVP appeared as if he had been off only a few days rather than since Jan. 18 with a high ankle sprain. He created numerous scoring opportunities with his speed and stickhandling as the Penguins retained their Atlantic Division lead.
Crosby was credited with three shots and had several other near misses before helping break the extended scoreless tie. Crosby cut through the right circle before sending a backhand pass that may have deflected off two Lightning players to Talbot in front of the net.
Lightning goalie Mike Smith couldn't make the save, perhaps his only mistake on a night when many of his 22 saves were difficult — including a stop of Petr Sykora's penalty shot in the second period. Despite Smith's play, the Lightning are 1-6-1 in their last eight and lost their second at home to the Penguins this season, their only losses in their last 15 games against them.
Fleury was even better than Smith while winning his sixth in a row in a streak that began before he also injured his right ankle, Dec. 6, and didn't start again until beating Atlanta 3-2 in a shootout Sunday.
Crosby didn't start a game he wasn't expected to play — it was a surprise when he declared himself ready to go after the pregame skate. But No. 87 took his first shift less than a minute in and didn't take long to get his first good scoring opportunity. He took Talbot's excellent cross-ice pass near the edge of the left circle and just missed an open net after being on the ice for perhaps 20 seconds.
Crosby, who was injured against Tampa Bay, had an even better chance late in the period. He came off the bench and immediately got loose on a breakaway, kicking the puck to his skate while beating defensemen Paul Ranger and Alexandre Picard. But Smith closed his pads to make the save.
Crosby had two more good chances, one on a short breakaway, early in the second period. Smith also made a left pad save on Malkin's backhander, and Fleury's best save probably came on Vincent Lecavalier's breakaway off Martin St. Louis' pass with 8 1/2 minutes remaining.
There was nothing wrong with Crosby's game — he was as fast and fluid as ever — except for his shooting touch. He had yet another great chance about seven minutes into the third period, missing from the right circle as he and Malkin played on the same line, just as they did before Crosby was hurt.
The Penguins didn't exactly go in the tank without their two No. 1 picks, moving into contention for the Eastern Conference and Atlantic Division titles by going 11-6-4 without Crosby and 22-9-5 without Fleury. Malkin assumed Crosby's role as the top-line center and had 36 points, with 14 goals, in 21 games, and owned the NHL scoring lead until Alex Ovechkin regained it Monday.
Notes:@ Crosby was the league's leading scorer with 63 points in 46 games before getting hurt. ... Penguins F Jordan Staal left with bruised ribs in the first period and didn't return. ... Still out for the Penguins is two-time All-Star forward Marian Hossa, who hurt a knee Thursday in Boston during his first game with them and isn't ready to return.