Five injured players who could tip playoffs

Updated: March 7, 2012, 9:31 AM ET
By Craig Custance

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.