PITTSBURGH -- In a quiet moment before Monday's morning skate, coach Dan Bylsma stood on the ice at the door to the Pittsburgh Penguins' bench. He looked back into the stands at all the TV cameras and reporters. He smiled.
"Look at the show," he said.
Actually, we were just setting the stage. Sidney Crosby, the best player in the NHL when he suffered a concussion in early January, will make his heavily anticipated return Monday night against the New York Islanders -- after a 320-day, 61-game absence.
#CrosbyWatch has become #WatchCrosby.
CBC is broadcasting the game nationally in Canada. Versus is doing the same in the United States. A mob of writers has come to chronicle Crosby 's every step. Now that we know the when and where, now that the waiting and speculating is over, one question remains: How well will Crosby come back?
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"I just expect to be ready," said Crosby, who was on pace for his best season before he was injured in early January, with 32 goals and 66 points in 41 games.
"I don't know at what level. But as far as what I need to do out there and creating things, I expect a lot. I've been working hard the last couple months to make sure that when it's time to come back I'm ready. Do I expect to be where I was in January last year? Probably not. But I expect to hopefully contribute."
Bylsma insisted there was no predetermined date for Crosby 's return. He said his wife gave away the family's tickets to the Islanders game a couple of days ago. But Bylsma said there was a "slight anticipation" that Monday night might be the night. Everyone knew Crosby had been cleared for contact and was getting close. The Penguins knew Crosby was going to see the doctor Sunday.
Crosby said there was no eureka moment when he knew he was ready. "It's not one of those things where you just wake up one day and it's gone," he said.
He had gradually gotten better since the start of training camp. Within the past couple of weeks, he had taken a hard hit in practice from teammate Deryk Engelland and a hard tumble into the boards -- moments when, he said, "you get up and kind of make sure you're good and everything's good."
He had cleared all the hurdles -- contact, travel, everything in between -- and so his doctor cleared him to play after he passed one final, routine test Sunday.
"I've just got to go out there and get in a game now," Crosby said. "That's really what it comes down to. I think that anyone who's gone through this, they'd be lying if they said they're not a little anxious to get those first couple hits in, whether it's giving them or taking them. But I think after that, things should be pretty normal besides just trying to adjust and get used to playing again."
Crosby looked sharp Monday morning, skating with old linemates Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis, playing down low on the power play, snapping pucks into the net.
When he walked into the dressing room, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury grinned and said, "Here he comes." A horde of reporters was already camped out at Crosby's spot, crowding out a couple of his teammates, even though Crosby has one empty stall next to him. James Neal and Matt Cooke had nowhere to sit.
First, a wave of TV reporters asked questions. Then, a wave of writers asked questions. Crosby leaned back, sipped a sports drink and savored it -- not the media attention, but going through the pregame routine again. He said the long wait wore on him. He said the hard part was going through all the steps of his return-to-play program. Returning to play will be the easy part.
"Tried not to think about how long it was going to be, but seemed like the months just kept adding up," Crosby said. "It's all behind me now and looking forward to getting started."
Bylsma said Crosby had told him, at least jokingly, that he was ready to start with about 12 minutes of ice time.
"I laugh at that," Bylsma said. He knows Crosby 's adrenaline will be pumping, that as soon as he takes one shift he'll want another, that as soon as he hits 12 minutes he'll want 13. Crosby said he expects Consol Energy Center to be loud.
"It should be a pretty amazing atmosphere," Crosby said. "I'm looking forward to it. I've missed it a lot."
Only a few more hours …