Crosby sparkles in long-awaited return

PITTSBURGH – On the first day of the rest of his career, on his third shift Monday, Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby(notes) skated straight up the center of the ice. He was flying when he got the puck just over the red line, sprinting full speed. Yet it was one of those moments when time becomes elastic, one of those moments

Crosby said he had "at least a few seconds" to see that the New York Islanders' defensemen were flat-footed, though it was more like a few split-seconds. Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said "it kind of played out there in slow motion" when Crosby had that "burst of speed."

"Just to see him get the puck there," Bylsma said, "I knew immediately their defense was in trouble."

Crosby crossed the blue line with a man on his back whacking him with a stick. He went wide right, using his left side to hold off another man in his path, protecting the puck, driving to the net, setting up a shot. The Consol Energy Center hushed in anticipation …

It was in this same building just 2½ months ago that Crosby sat on a podium between two concussion experts. One explained how Crosby had damaged the very thing that made him the best hockey player on the planet – the vestibular system in the brain, which integrates sensory information. In other words, the doctor said, Crosby had scrambled the computer that processes space and motion "when you're in a busy environment, when you're skating down the ice and the boards are flying by." The other expert explained how Crosby had lost the ability to know precisely where his hands were in relation to his body. He said Crosby had to rewire his brain.

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Now Crosby was back in a busy environment, back with the boards flying by for the first time in 320 days. He hadn't played since Jan. 5, when he suffered his second blow to the head in a five-day span. He had missed 61 games – 68, including the playoffs.

Yet he held off that defender …

Yet he lifted that puck on his backhand …

Yet he rifled his very first shot into the roof of the net and popped up the goaltender's water bottle …

Yet he curled into the right-wing corner, leaned back on one skate and pumped both fists as the arena roared …

"[Bleep] yeah!" he screamed.

All it took was 5:24 for Crosby to score yet another memorable goal. There was the Winter Classic Winner in 2008, when the league held its first annual outdoor game and he sealed a shootout victory as snow fell in Buffalo. There was the Golden Goal in 2010, when Team Canada beat the United States at the Vancouver Olympics. And this was the Comeback Goal.

"He certainly showed another knack for coming up big when the spotlight's on," Bylsma said.

At least for one game, Crosby picked up right where he left off when he was injured – when he had racked up 32 goals and 66 points halfway through last season, on pace for the best season of his career, and the best season the NHL had seen since the 1990s.

He had two goals and two assists in the Penguins' 5-0 rout of the Islanders. He was also plus-3, took eight shots and went 14-for-21 on face-offs in 15:54 of ice time. But it wasn't just the stats.

He took hits and initiated contact, too. He buzzed around down low like he always used to do, battling for pucks in the corners, pouncing on loose pucks around the net. He looked like himself again. As Penguins defenseman Kris Letang(notes) said: "You saw the real Sid tonight."

"You get the feeling that Sid's back," Penguins winger Pascal Dupuis(notes) said, "and he's back for real."

The Penguins have seen great comebacks before. Perhaps none was bigger than Mario Lemieux, who came back multiple times – from back surgery, from cancer and from retirement. On Dec. 27, 2000, he came out of retirement, recorded an assist on his first shift and ended up with three points against the Toronto Maple Leafs in a game broadcast across Canada and the United States.

"I remember it," Crosby said on Monday morning, sitting in the dressing room surrounded by a horde of reporters. "He set the standard pretty high for first shifts in comebacks. So I think it's pretty hard to match that."

Yeah, it took Crosby three shifts to score instead of one.

Crosby still followed in Lemieux's footsteps. Lemieux saw to it himself. When Lemieux returned from back surgery in 1990-91, he was greeted by a sea of "MARIO" signs at the old Igloo. He never forgot it. So when Crosby was cleared to play Sunday, Lemieux, now the team's chairman, came up with an idea. The Penguins had thousands of signs printed overnight. The words "WELCOME BACK" were in small type, with a Penguins logo over the "O." The name "SID" was in large type.

As the fans filed into the arena Monday night – past the scalpers asking for twice face value, at least – each one received a sign. They waved them as the teams warmed up to a Sidney Crosby comeback-inspired soundtrack.

Aerosmith: "I'm back in the saddle again. I'm baaack!"
Foo Fighters: "There goes my hero"
AC/DC: "Back in black. Yes, I'm back in black!"

ROOT Sports, which carries Penguins games in Pittsburgh, had a Crosby Cam during warm-ups and a "COUNTDOWN TO COMEBACK" clock in a corner of the screen. CBC prepared to air the game in Canada. Versus prepared to air it in the United States.

Finally, the rink went dark. A Crosby highlight montage played on the scoreboards. The fans were urged to hold up their "SID" signs, and out came Crosby, second-to-last, ahead of only Evgeni Malkin(notes), as always. He skated around with a spotlight literally on him, and when his name was announced as part of the starting lineup, he raised his stick to acknowledge the fans.

"CROS-BY!" they chanted. "CROS-BY!"

"It was amazing," Crosby said. "I expected people to be loud, but that was far beyond what I expected and pretty amazing and pretty special."

In Pittsburgh, it was an emotional moment. In places where Crosby is despised – or where people just think he is overexposed – it was a nauseating moment.



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But then came the game and a performance on which everyone should be able to agree. On Crosby's first shift, the Penguins generated scoring chances, Chris Kunitz(notes) hitting the crossbar. On his third, he scored the Comeback Goal and displayed his profane, couldn't-hold-it-in celebration. "Hopefully everyone wasn't reading lips at home," he said with a sheepish smile.

Soon afterward, just as important, he took a hard hit in the corner and a cross-check in the back, drawing a penalty and confirming that, yeah, he was all right.

"To come out of that OK, I think it gives you some reassurance," he said. "I don't think I needed it, but it's always good in this process to get a couple of those out of the way early."

Before the first period was over, Crosby sent a backhand pass from the left-wing boards to defenseman Brooks Orpik(notes), who one-timed a laser into the upper-left corner of the net. The Pens led, 2-0. Crosby already had two points.

"Amazing," Penguins general manager Ray Shero said in his private box.

Crosby assisted on the Penguins' third goal, too, on the power play early in the second.

Then, in the third, the cherry on top.

He fought for the puck in the right-wing corner. He carried it back up the boards. Then he hit the brakes, spun around, drove to the net and slipped another backhand shot past the stunned goalie's glove. The Pens pulled ahead, 5-0. The loudspeakers thumped.

Eminem: "Guess who's back? Back again … "

Maybe it was just adrenaline. Maybe it was because Crosby was so pumped to be back and swept up in the moment. Lots of athletes come back from lots of injuries, give us a brief burst of excellence and then hit a wall before gradually returning to form.

And this wasn't just any injury. This was a concussion, which one of those experts called "a very complicated, convoluted, cryptic thing to go through." It took 10½ months before Crosby and his doctors felt comfortable and confident enough for him to return. It is reasonable to expect that it will take weeks or months before we really know how well Crosby has recovered.

The biggest fear in all this remains – that a concussion could dim the brightest star in the game just as he was rising to new heights in a career that already included a Stanley Cup, an Olympic gold, an MVP award, a scoring title and a goal-scoring title. One game, no matter how great, does not complete a comeback. This is just the beginning. Crosby is still only 24 years old.

"I think that it's a relief, but it's not time to start gliding now," Crosby said Monday morning. "It's time to get going."

Yet look at how he got going Monday night. What's reasonable does not always apply to Crosby. "He's a world-class player," Kunitz said, "so he's already a head above most guys in the league, anyway."

The way he played, you can't help but wonder …

How good can this team be? The Penguins went 34-19-8 in 61 regular-season games without Crosby – and played a chunk of those games without Malkin, too. Now Malkin looks like Malkin again after overcoming shoulder and knee injuries. Letang and Jordan Staal(notes) have reached new levels. Marc-Andre Fleury(notes) has been as good as ever in goal. James Neal(notes) and Steve Sullivan(notes) have been great additions. With a healthy Crosby, the Penguins are the best team in the league.

How quickly can Crosby catch up? Lemieux missed two months of the 1992-93 season while undergoing radiation treatment for Hodgkin's lymphoma. When he returned, he was 12 points behind Pat LaFontaine in the NHL scoring race. He ended up winning the scoring title, beating out LaFontaine by 12 points.

No one should compare Crosby's comeback to Lemieux's. A concussion is not Hodgkin's lymphoma. Crosby is not Lemieux.

Yet …

After the game Monday night, a reporter asked Bylsma if Crosby could catch the NHL's leading scorer, Toronto's Phil Kessel(notes).

"Um, what's the race at right now?" Bylsma asked.

Crosby is 25 points behind.

"I'm not going to make any prediction on that," Bylsma said, smiling. "We've got 61 games left, and his pace is pretty good right now."

It's crazy. Yet …

You gonna count him out?

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