Sidney Crosby comeback watch continues

Nicholas J. Cotsonika

TORONTO – Look, I'm as guilty as anybody. I saw Sidney Crosby(notes) had been cleared for contact, had been practicing hard and had not ruled himself out of the Pittsburgh Penguins' next game. So I gassed up the car and got ready to hit the road.

If the NHL's best player was going to make his long-awaited return from a concussion last Friday night against the Dallas Stars, I wanted to be there with the rest of the national media. I had to be there.

When the Penguins said Crosby wouldn't play Friday night or Saturday night against the Carolina Hurricanes, I just ran my finger down to the next game on the schedule: Tuesday night against the Colorado Avalanche. Would that be it?

I threw an extra change of clothes in my bag when I left for the Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony and NHL general managers' meeting in Toronto, just in case I had to change course for Pittsburgh.

Then the Penguins said Crosby wouldn't play against the Avs, either, and I spotted Pens general manager Ray Shero on the red carpet at the Hall.

"We never told anybody to watch the calendar, honestly," Shero said.

We're going to watch the calendar now. We can't help it. Some of it is just timing and common sense, because Crosby has been out since Jan. 5, has been making progress and has to be coming back relatively soon. Some of it is just impatience and paranoia. No one wants to miss out on such a big story.

But as natural as it is, none of it is helping. It isn't helping Crosby. It isn't helping set the example of how to return from a concussion properly. It isn't helping the Penguins – distracting the team and also distracting from what the team has accomplished without the best player in the game.

Crosby apparently was annoyed when he came off the ice after practice last Wednesday and found even more reporters than usual waiting for him. He refused to speak publicly, then circled back and chatted off the record. Listen to Keith Primeau, who retired from hockey because of concussions, and you can understand how Crosby might feel.

"I get calls every day that Sidney's probably coming back Thursday or Friday or Saturday, and you can't [say that]," Primeau said. "You can't predict when that moment in time is going to be, and I think the most dangerous thing to do is to try to put a timeframe on it, because then the player feels under pressure."

Would all the attention really put pressure on a player so used to attention?

"People don't realize it's a pressure, but it's a pressure and the player internalizes it," Primeau said. "They want to be out there. It's not that he doesn't want to be out there."

Primeau said he didn't communicate with Crosby directly, but he sent him a message telling him to make sure he feels right before he returns.

Crosby cannot afford to come back too soon – for his own health, first and foremost, but also for the health of so many others. We're not only awaiting his return. We're watching how he and the Penguins manage it, and when the day comes, we'll be watching to see how he performs. Can he take a hit? Can he make plays like he used to? Is he still Sidney Crosby?

If Crosby can't do it right, when he is so valuable and has the luxury of taking his time, what about players scrapping for roster spots? What about kids?

"Whether he likes it or not, he has become kind of the face of it," said Primeau, who has been outspoken on the issue and helped launch the website "Without knowing it or not as well, he's become a real ambassador for the cause, especially in the way he's handled it. Their whole organization, the way they've handled it, it's been tremendous."

The Penguins might have botched the initial diagnosis of Crosby's concussion. After his collision with the Washington Capitals' David Steckel at the end of the second period in the Winter Classic on New Year's Day, he probably shouldn't have played the third period, let alone been in position to take a hard hit from the Tampa Bay Lightning's Victor Hedman(notes) four days later.

But that's hindsight. Shero has said he saw Crosby at 4:30 p.m. before the Tampa Bay game and it never occurred to him that his franchise player had a concussion.

At least since then, it appears the Penguins have handled Crosby as well as possible. They have not put internal pressure on him, and they have tried to shield him from outside pressure.

The Penguins have made it clear that they will give Crosby all the time he needs and won't burden him with expectations whenever he does return. Remember that Crosby had reached a new level even for him when he was injured, racking up 32 goals and 66 points in exactly half a season. It would be unreasonable to assume he will just pick up where he left off.

"If he happens to jump right back in and do it at a certain level, great," Shero said. "If it's going to be a little bit slow coming, that's OK. We're just going to be thrilled to have him back at some point. That's what we're interested in."

After a silent summer, the Penguins held a press conference before training camp that included Crosby and two of the experts who have treated him. Micky Collins, director of the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program in Pittsburgh, laid out a conservative return-to-play plan and said he could "guarantee you that we're not going to make any mistakes in this case."

Crosby hasn't been as available as usual lately, but the Penguins have promised they will announce his return a day ahead of time. That way, reporters will be able to scramble from wherever they are to get to the game. More to the point, that way reporters won't be camped out in Pittsburgh.

"It's a great story when he comes back," Shero said. "Every game we're leading up to now, it's putting everybody on the defensive. People are emailing, calling. We don't want to overshadow the team."

The Penguins are a great story already. They don't deserve to be overshadowed.

For virtually all of last season, they didn't have their top three centers on the ice at the same time – Crosby, Evgeni Malkin(notes) and Jordan Staal(notes). Not only were they without Crosby and Malkin for most of the second half, they had so many other injuries that they might as well have been the Wilkes-Barre Penguins at times. Still, they earned 106 points, tied for second-most in the Eastern Conference. They stuck to coach Dan Bylsma's system, played the same way, got great goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury(notes) and kept winning.

And they have kept winning this season. They have 23 points, tied for tops in the East. Malkin is back from a knee injury and has 12 points in 10 games. James Neal(notes), so cold after he was acquired last season, is hot with 11 goals and 17 points in 17 games. Staal and Fleury have been excellent. Even bad boy Matt Cooke(notes) has been a good boy so far, with 10 points and only four penalty minutes.

That should make it easier to wait for Crosby. It's not like the Pens are struggling without him. But it still makes it hard to be patient and prudent, for reporters, for fans, even for Shero. How good would this team be with Sidney Crosby in the lineup?

Shero acknowledged the Penguins were playing well without him, but then he just laughed.

"We're better with him, though," he said. "We'll be better with him."

And so the wait continues.