PITTSBURGH -- Sidney Crosby feels like he's already played 20 minutes just thinking about making his return to the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup.
"It's something I've thought about a lot over the last 10 months, so it's pretty exciting," Crosby said Monday morning from Consol Energy Center. "You don't always get this anxious for games, and this is one I can definitely say I'm anxious and excited for."
Nobody is quite sure how many minutes Crosby will be able to log Monday night against the New York Islanders, but there is no doubt in No. 87's mind that he's ready to contribute.
Crosby last played on Jan. 5 against Tampa Bay. He's missed 68 games, including 61 in the regular season, dealing with symptoms related to a concussion. He's been practicing since training camp opened on Sept. 17 and has been cleared for contact since Oct. 13, but he wasn't cleared to play in a game until Sunday.
"It's something I've thought about a lot over the last 10 months, so it's pretty exciting. You don't always get this anxious for games and this is one I can definitely say I'm anxious and excited for." -- Sidney Crosby
"I went to see the doctor yesterday and everything was good," Crosby said, adding he has no further questions for the doctors now. "Everything has gone really smooth here the last little while. I was comfortable with how I felt going through contact. I was very comfortable and confident that I was able to come back. I went through all that stuff and here I am."
While he has reached the end of an arduous journey back to the National Hockey League, Crosby now faces the challenge of regaining his form as arguably the best hockey player in the world.
"There are always expectations, and up to this point I expected to play as soon as I can," Crosby said. "Now I can play, so now I expect to contribute. It's a relief, but it's not time to start gliding out. It's time to get going. I just look forward to the challenges that come with that."
Crosby will begin attempting to tackle his next phase of challenges in a familiar spot as the center between Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz. They were his linemates for a large portion of his 25-game scoring streak last season.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said he's starting Crosby there "because that's probably the most comfortable spot for him to be in."
Crosby didn't seem at all uneasy dealing with the huge media contingent in town to cover his return, which many are comparing to when Mario Lemieux returned to the Penguins' lineup on Dec. 27, 2000, a little over three years after he initially retired and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Lemieux picked up an assist on his first shift and finished the night with 3 points. Crosby remembers watching it as a teenager in Cole Harbour, N.S.
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Much like Lemieux's return, Crosby's will play out in front of a national audience in both the United States and Canada.
Versus switched its national game of the night from Montreal-Boston to Pittsburgh-New York just to be here for Crosby's return. CBC added this game as a special edition of Hockey Night in Canada.
National media outlets such as ESPN, ESPN.com, TSN, RDS, Rogers Sportsnet, USA Today, The New York Times, Yahoo and The Globe and Mail all have reporters here. All of Pittsburgh's local television affiliates had a camera crew at the morning skate.
The media forced James Neal to wait his turn before getting undressed after the morning skate. Neal is Crosby's neighbor in the Penguins' dressing room, and since Crosby opted not to hold a press conference, the media throng was spread well into Neal's personal space.
"He has a lot of people over him," Neal told NHL.com. "Just the buzz he brings and how much people love him and how good of a player he is, it's great for hockey. I'm just excited and glad that he's ready to play again and do what he does best."
Since he's been out of game action for so long, Crosby isn't sure how he'll feel as the game progresses Monday. That's why he couldn't even answer any of the questions regarding what should be expected of him immediately.
"I just expect to be ready," Crosby said. "I don't know at what level, but as far as what I need to do out there, create things, I expect a lot. I've been working the last couple of 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? Probably not, but I expect to be able to contribute."
He wants to make sure he gets into the game early, so don't be surprised if he starts initiating contact, something he's completely confident he'll be able to do without issue.
"I think anybody that has gone through this and missed this amount of time, you've got to make sure you get involved early and get that first hit under your belt," Crosby said. "Maybe that means having to initiate that more myself in order to do that, but anybody that has gone through this realizes that, yeah, there is a feeling out process to get back into it.
"As far as my confidence level of getting hit, it's all there," he added. "I feel confident going to those areas and taking contact."
He feels confident with just about everything associated with his return, even the anxiety that will only intensify as puck drop nears.
"Now is the easy part. Now you just have to go play," Crosby said. "When you're getting ready, that's the tough part. Practicing and going through each of those steps is really the hard part of this. Now I have to go out there and do it."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl