PITTSBURGH -- The wait of Sidney Crosby's life is nearly over.
He persevered for exactly 700 days just for this. He endured the worst injury of his career, and a frustratingly long and uncertain recovery from it. He dealt with the heartache of a long-anticipated but discouragingly short comeback, then the lengthy wait and uncertainty that preceded his next return.
Throughout his long breaks away from the sport he loves and, quite frequently, he dominates, there was this thought in the back of his mind: "If only I can return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs ..."
To players like Crosby, the playoffs are more than where the Stanley Cup is pursued, fought over and finally won during two months filled with equal measures of joy and unhappiness, stamina and setbacks, pain and gain. They are where legends are created, Hall of Fame careers are cemented, dynasties are born and where they die, where the very good separate themselves from the good, where the great rise above the rest.
Now, on Wednesday night, Crosby will play his first playoff game for the Pittsburgh Penguins since a Game 7 loss to Montreal in the Eastern Conference Semifinals on May 12, 2010. That his playoff return comes against the Philadelphia Flyers, a team that brings out both the best and the worst in Crosby, only adds to the intrigue.
The two sides of Pennsylvania are on polar opposite sides of this series and Crosby's role in them.
In Pittsburgh, Crosby -- and Evgeni Malkin, who also missed last season's playoffs -- gives a successful franchise and its fan base great hope that the Stanley Cup can be displayed in a June parade for the second time in four years.
In Philadelphia, where Crosby is more reviled than respected, there is a great passion to send Crosby and Penguins home packing quickly and to atone for those two Flyers playoff defeats to Crosby-led Pittsburgh in 2008 and 2009.
After his final pre-playoffs practice Tuesday, Crosby tried to downplay what it means to him to be back in the playoffs, saying they are big for every player.
"It's always there, whether it's been two years or not. You're excited to play in the playoffs and that's why you work so hard to get to this point," Crosby said. "It's pretty simple, it's pretty clear everyone cares about winning and nobody cares about anything else. That's what I like most about it."
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma could only watch with equal parts sympathy and frustration as Crosby endured a 10-month layoff before he could play again Nov. 21, then another three-month layoff after his concussion symptoms returned. So Bylsma knows what being back in the playoffs means to No. 87.
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When Crosby returned March 15 against the Rangers, it wasn't just about playing again, but playing again to get ready for the playoffs.
"I think 14 games ago when Sidney started to play, there were different people saying different things about should he come back, should he have stayed [away until] the playoffs," Bylsma said. "He wanted to play 14 games, and he thought it was important to play 14 games to ready for the postseason, to get ready for the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. "
Crosby played well enough to produce six goals and 19 assists and an average of 1.79 points per game in those 14 games. He has four goals and eight assists in his last five games.
"He's worked on his timing, the mental part of his game, some of the situations he hasn't been in for a long time," Bylsma said. "I think you see a guy who's really excited, really focused on getting back and playing a Stanley Cup playoff game."
When Crosby sustained a concussion following hard hits in successive games on Jan. 1 and 5, 2011, he was almost universally considered to be the best player in the game. With 32 goals and 66 points in 41 games, he was on pace for the NHL's best offensive season in 15 years -- but he wouldn't play again for nearly 11 months.
With Crosby off the ice for three-quarters of this season, Malkin has risen to such best-in-the-game acclaim during an Art Ross Trophy-winning season in which he reached the 50-goal level for the first time. And it is Malkin who is now on the top line, with Chris Kunitz and 40-goal scorer James Neal, while Crosby is on the second line with Steve Sullivan and Pascal Dupuis.
Still, forward Craig Adams cautioned that while the Penguins are excited about having Crosby, Malkin and Matt Cooke back - Cooke was suspended for a quarterfinals series loss to Tampa Bay last spring -- they cannot automatically assume their return guarantees enormous success.
"Each team is its own team and what you do during the season contributes to your identity and how you're going to play," Adams said. "Last year was last year and this year is different and we're certainly happy to have those guys in the lineup. We do have confidence in and feel good about our team and feel like we've got a good chance to win."
While the Flyers are an exceedingly difficult matchup in the first round -- Pittsburgh and Philadelphia were second and third in points in the Eastern Conference -- they have visibly motivated Crosby to play at an exceedingly-high level.
Only six weeks into his NHL career in 2005, several of Crosby's teeth were badly damaged by a stick-to-the-mouth hit from tough guy Derian Hatcher, yet Crosby returned to score the game-winning goal in overtime. A season later, he had his first career three-goal game against the Flyers, plus a six-point game.
Crosby has 27 goals and 66 points in 39 regular season games against the Flyers, plus six goals and nine assists in 11 playoff games -- eight of them Penguins wins.
When the Flyers last saw Crosby in the playoffs, he was scoring the tying and go-ahead goals as the Penguins rallied from a three-goal deficit to beat the Flyers 5-3 and eliminate them in Game 6 in 2009.
Crosby knows a playoff series that matches teams with a combined 211 points will be more competitive, more combative still.
"That's usually what happens with rivalries and the intensity and everything that comes with it," he said. "That's to be expected, that's a good thing, but the playoffs are different. You only get a few (scoring) chances, it's a little bit tighter and all those things become magnified."
And it's all Crosby ever wanted again, even if he realizes how difficult it will be for the Penguins --even with him back on the ice -- to reach the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
"We're confident. I don't think we're more confident than usual," Crosby said. "We're just preparing like we usually would. That's the important thing of having the right mindset through the year, making sure you don't have to change everything as soon as the playoffs come. I think our mentality and the way we approach things has always been serious."