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The Sidney Crosby comeback question

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports
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FIRST PERIOD

He cut me off before I could finish the question. If Sidney Crosby(notes) does come back this season, I started to ask Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury(notes), won’t it be hard to expect him to play at the level …

“Why is that?” Fleury responded, smiling.

Because, I started to say, he’s coming off a concussion and …

“But we’re talking about Sid,” Fleury interrupted again, still smiling. “The guy’s got a great work ethic, great talent. I’m sure as soon as he comes back, his presence is going to be felt on the team and other teams also.”

I wouldn’t put it past him. It would just add to his legend. It’s obvious why there has been so much excitement over every nugget of news, like when Crosby started skating on his own a couple of weeks ago and when he started participating in morning skates with his teammates Thursday, before their game against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“Who wouldn’t want to have the best player in the game on your team in the playoffs?” Penguins winger Pascal Dupuis(notes) said. “So I surely hope he’ll be back at 100 percent.”

But if he comes back – and that’s far from certain – how can we be so sure Sidney Crosby will be Sidney Crosby? Can he play like the best player in the game again, just like that? For all his superpowers, Crosby has a Penguin on his chest, not an “S.”

Crosby had reached new heights right before he went down. He had 32 goals and 66 points in 41 games, on pace for the best statistical season of his career – which already includes goal- and point-scoring titles and an MVP award – and the best statistical season in the NHL since the early 1990s.

Now he hasn’t played since Jan. 5, when he took a hit to the head for the second straight game, and concussions are particularly complicated injuries. Even when players have experience dealing with concussions and come back strong during the season, it can be difficult (see Second Period note on the St. Louis BluesAndy McDonald(notes) below).

This is Crosby’s first concussion. If he returns this season, it will be after missing the entire second half of the regular season and it will be in the playoffs, when the action is at the peak of intensity.

The Penguins have tried to temper expectations about the timing of Crosby’s return. General manager Ray Shero has made it clear that the Penguins will not rush him. If anything, they seem to be extra cautious, holding him back. Shero said Crosby will not return for any of the Penguins’ final five regular-season games and there might not be time for him to return in the playoffs.

That is wise. “Sid’s a smart guy, and he wants to play a long time,” said Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, who coached Crosby when Team Canada won gold at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. “He’s young, and his team’s young. So be careful. We need him in the game.”

It’s trickier for the Penguins to temper expectations about how Crosby will perform if he does return. They can’t let him play unless they’re confident he’s 100 percent again. They shouldn’t sell short a player with his gifts, and they don’t want to take hope from him and his teammates, who have battled so hard and well without him – not to mention Evgeni Malkin(notes) and others – and are so confident in what he can do.

Asked if it is reasonable to expect that Crosby could come back and play like the best player in the game, Dupuis said flatly: “He will. The way I know him, the way everybody knows him on this team, you can expect that he will.”

Even coming off something like this?

“He will,” Dupuis repeated. “Just because he’s that kind of person. Talent doesn’t mean anything when you’re Sidney Crosby. It’s all about work ethic, all about dedication to the game. It’s all about wanting it, and he’s the kind of person that … I’m not worried at all.”

SECOND PERIOD

As you think about Crosby, consider the comeback of McDonald. He missed 24 games with a concussion this season. Since returning Feb. 4, he has been a point-a-game player for the Blues, with 10 goals and 28 points in 28 games. So it can be done.

But this was McDonald’s fourth concussion, not his first, and even though he knew what to expect, there still was struggle and uncertainty. There were scary moments.

McDonald lost an edge and fell Dec. 4, and his head struck the leg of Edmonton Oilers center Shawn Horcoff(notes). He said he wouldn’t classify his concussion symptoms as intense, but they were an everyday issue – consistent headaches, feeling in a fog.

“There’s something going on where you don’t feel quite right,” McDonald said. “That part of it, just not knowing … A lot of other injuries, they’re able to give you some kind of timeline. With the concussion, it’s just waiting – waiting until you feel right again. That’s the hard part, not knowing when that’s going to be.”

Finally, McDonald skated by himself for about four or five days. Then he skated with the team for about three or four days. His skating, shooting and passing skills all came back quickly. His timing didn’t.

Timing is a bigger issue when coming back from a concussion, McDonald said, because “there’s kind of the mental part of it where sometimes you kind of question if you’re ready or not.” Could he react quickly enough to avoid hits? How would he react when he took a hit?

McDonald had two goals and six points in his first six games. But he said that was deceiving.

“The first five, six games, you feel like you’re a little bit slow,” McDonald said. “I felt like I was kind of maybe putting myself in some vulnerable positions, just not being aware. I think that’s just getting your body up to speed and getting your reaction time up to speed.”

The first couple of times he took a hit, McDonald asked himself: “Are you OK? Are you OK?”

“That’s the biggest thing, being able to take a hit and realize you’re OK and your body’s healed and you’re ready to play again,” McDonald said. “Once you get past that point, you kind of forget about it and really focus more on the hockey and less on the injury. You get back to where you were before.”

Asked what was reasonable to expect of Crosby, McDonald said: “I’m not sure. A lot of it depends on how much practice time you have. … Probably giving him extra time will help him get up to speed. I would expect, a player like Sidney, the caliber that he is … I don’t think he’s going to miss a beat. I think you’ll see him back to where he was.”

THIRD PERIOD

The Red Wings just suffered their worst loss in years – a 10-3 stinker to the Blues before a booing crowd at Joe Louis Arena. They just finished a five-game homestand 1-2-2. They just slipped to 21st in the NHL in goals against (2.88 per game). But there is more poise than panic for a team that will make its 20th consecutive playoff appearance.

The Wings jumped out to a 17-4-2 start this season. When they ran into injury problems, they remained high in the standings. Lately they have been sitting on that cushion of points while playing more desperate teams who have been scrapping for playoff positioning, scrapping to make the playoffs or scrapping to make a statement at the end of the season.

Another problem for now is that these guys have been through this so many times before. They have gone into the playoffs hot and fizzled in the first round. They have gone in cold and won the Stanley Cup. Defense? They ranked 21st in goals against in 2008-09, too. They went to Game 7 of the Cup final.

In short, they have seen how little the regular season can matter come playoff time, and they think they can turn it on when properly motivated. “We’ve been seeing that switch, too,” Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg(notes) said. “When we’re really back up against the wall, we’re playing good hockey.”

That’s fine, as long as the Wings get that switch flipped, and the time is coming.

The Wings have been much better on the road (24-10-4) than at home (20-13-6) this season, but they still want home-ice advantage, if only to save on the wear and tear of travel. They have put themselves in jeopardy of losing the second seed in the Western Conference, which would guarantee home ice for the first two rounds. The San Jose Sharks are one point behind with a game in hand.

Center Pavel Datsyuk(notes) and goaltender Jimmy Howard(notes) are slated to return from injuries Saturday against the Nashville Predators, whom the Wings lead by six points in the Central Division. With four of their final five games against teams fighting for playoff spots – one against the Predators, one against the Carolina Hurricanes, two against the Chicago Blackhawks – the Wings have ample opportunity to get their game going. They should have ample incentive, too.

OVERTIME

Is James Reimer(notes) for real? Is he going to be a flash in the pan, or does his remarkable run indicate he could become a big-time goaltender? What do the Toronto Maple Leafs really think?

This might be a hint: Francois Allaire, the Leafs’ renowned goaltending consultant, has compared him in private to one of his star pupils, Jean-Sebastien Giguere(notes).

“I was talking to Francois Allaire the other day, and he loves him,” said Red Wings goaltender Joey MacDonald(notes), who spent last season in the Leafs organization. “He’s calling him a young Giggy. Giguere was like that back when he was 22 years old or 23 years old. He’s like, ‘He’s playing just like Giguere was.’ ”

Giguere, 33, won a Stanley Cup and a Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player with the Anaheim Ducks. But he has struggled with a nagging groin injury this season with the Leafs, and he’s now backing up Reimer, 23, who rose from fourth or fifth on the Leafs’ depth chart to help them get back into the playoff race. Reimer is 18-8-4 with a 2.55 goals-against average and .922 save percentage.

MacDonald said Reimer is athletic enough to make unorthodox, acrobatic saves. But he said he was a coachable kid who would try whatever he is asked, and he has become a typical Allaire goaltender, using size and positioning to block the puck.

“He’s huge in there,” MacDonald said of Reimer, who is listed at 6-foot-2, 208 pounds. “He looks even bigger this year than he did last year. He doesn’t overchallenge. He doesn’t come out of the blue paint. He stays in the blue paint, and he’s so big, that’s how he stops a lot of the pucks.”

SHOOTOUT

• When the NHL didn’t suspend the Wings’ Todd Bertuzzi(notes) for his hit on the Blackhawks’ Ryan Johnson(notes) on Monday night, it was noted that Bertuzzi has not faced supplemental discipline since the Steve Moore incident in 2004. “You haven’t heard my name at all, have you?” Bertuzzi said. But that’s about all Bertuzzi will say about it. He doesn’t want to talk about anything that references the Moore incident even indirectly – even his clean record since – because it continues to hang over his head in the courts and the court of public opinion. “I think Bert’s had one incident,” Babcock said. “The incident went real bad on him. Other guys helped with that incident. And I think it’s something we talk about day after day after day for no reason.”

• Blackhawks defenseman Brian Campbell(notes) started studying the standings as early as 10 games into the season, knowing the defending Stanley Cup champions would need to battle just to make the playoffs. Now that the ’Hawks hold the eighth and final playoff spot in the West as they head down the stretch, he not only studies the standings, he studies the upcoming schedule for the ’Hawks and their closest competitors, too. “Every night after a game,” Campbell said. “Probably in the morning again to catch up, too.”

• Not Patrick Kane(notes). He studied the standings for a while. But then the Blackhawks won eight consecutive games, only to go 0-1-2 in their next three and slip right back into trouble. He couldn’t take it anymore. “It’s really no use,” Kane said. “You’re going to be at the same spot no matter what. Everyone seems to be so close this year. So I don’t know. I’ve stopped looking at it. Just try to worry about ourselves.”

• The Dallas Stars announced this week that they will hold training camp again in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. They aren’t doing it because P.E.I. is the home province of Brad Richards(notes), a pending unrestricted free agent. But they’ve been joking about it for months. Remember this quote from captain Brenden Morrow(notes) in December? “The plan is to go back there next year,” Morrow said, smiling. “So I think we’re trying to work different angles and do everything we can to keep Mr. Richards happy and a part of this team.”

@cotsonika tweet of the week: “First hockey game I ever saw live was Leafs at Wings. Fell in love with the sport that night. It’s a shame we don’t have this matchup more.”