It was a year ago that questions surrounded Sidney Crosby's NHL future.
When would the Pittsburgh Penguins captain return to the lineup? If he did return, what kind of player would he be? Could he still be the dominant force he was prior to the concussion and neck injuries that took him out of the lineup for most of a 14-month span?
As we reach the one-year anniversary of Crosby's most recent return, he again is right where he was when he began his injury ordeal: on top of the NHL scoring race and regarded as the best player in the game.
"I get to play with the best player in the world every night," Chris Kunitz, Crosby's linemate, told the Penguins' website. "It makes going out and playing a lot of fun."
Fun is something Crosby certainly is having again, after so many dark days.
"It's just so nice to talk about hockey and not wonder, 'Am I ever going to feel like myself again?'" Crosby recently told the Toronto Sun. "There is no [trepidation] out on the ice. The only thoughts I have out there are hockey thoughts: Where is the puck, what do I have to do to get it back, who is open for a pass?"Crosby has found lots of open players since returning. In 48 regular-season and Stanley Cup Playoff games in the last calendar year, he has 59 assists. That includes a League-high 35 this season. He also has 21 goals for 80 points since his return March 15, 2012.
And, most importantly, he hasn't missed a game.
This season Crosby leads the League in assists and points (47) in 28 games. He's on pace for 80 points this season, and 137 points if projected to 82 games. His current 1.68 points per game would be the most in a full season since Mario Lemieux averaged 2.30 in 1995-96.
Crosby has 12 goals, a team-best 15 points on the power play, a plus-20 rating that's second in the League, and he's won 55.4 percent of his faceoffs while taking the second-most draws in the League (688). He's also been used consistently as a penalty killer.
NHL Network analyst Craig Button told NHL.com, "You look at him on the penalty kill. He's 25 years old; he's right into the prime years now. To me, all that's telling me is evolution equals complete. He is a complete, complete player."
When it was announced Crosby would return to the Penguins' lineup on March 15, 2012, no one was sure what kind of player he would be. He missed the second half and playoffs in the 2011-12 season with concussion and neck problems that started with a hard hit during the 2011 Winter Classic.
He made one comeback attempt in November 2011, and it began with a bang: two goals and two assists against the New York Islanders. That return lasted eight games, though, as more concussion-type symptoms put him back on the sideline for another three months.
When he came back the second time, he again made a major impact in his first game, drawing assists on a pair of third-period goals in a 5-2 win against the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden. He played 16 minutes, was a plus-3, took one shot on goal, blocked a shot and won 11 of 21 faceoffs.
"I felt pretty good," Crosby said that night. "There's still some rust there, and that's going to take time. As for the timing, it got a little bit better, or at least it felt a little more comfortable as the game went on. To get into a game like that, a big situation like that, the intensity and everything that comes with it, I'm just happy to get that first one over with and keep going here."
Rangers defenseman Marc Staal told NHL.com that night, "You could see skill that speaks for itself."
But would Crosby be able to sustain it?
"You know the dedication, you know how good a player he is," Button said. "People said, 'Is he going to be the same guy?' [But] Sidney doesn't know how to be anything but what he is."
Any rust flaked away quickly as Crosby piled up seven assists in his next three games. He scored his first goal March 24, his sixth game back, and scored his second goal a night later.
He closed the season strong, with 12 points in his final five regular-season games. He had a goal and three assists March 30 at the Buffalo Sabres, and two goals (including the game-winner) April 3 at the Boston Bruins. He scored another game-winning goal in the regular-season finale April 7 against the Flyers.
"I get to play with the best player in the world every night. It makes going out and playing a lot of fun."
-- Penguins forward Chris Kunitz on his linemate Sidney Crosby
He finished his second comeback with six goals and 19 assists (25 points) in 14 games.
He had eight points in the first four games of the Penguins' opening-round playoff series against the Flyers, but was held off the score sheet in the final two. However, the statistic that might have been just as important was the 404 total hits in the six games (67.3 per game), and through all the physicality -- including one fight -- Crosby never missed a shift.
When the 2012-13 season opened, Crosby was held without a point opening night, but that became the exception this season -- it's happened six times.
"He's had eight three-point games this season and one five-point game, so nine three-or-more-point games," Button said. "That's domination."
Button said he's convinced Crosby today is better than the pre-injury version.
"When I watch Sidney now, and I would never suggest that he's better because of [the injuries]," he said, "but the fact is that he's found a way to, in my view, not only use his experience, but use the time off to come back, I think, even better.
"When Wayne Gretzky was the League's best player and Mario Lemieux was in the League and Steve Yzerman, those guys, the discussion never was about who the best player was. It was always about, OK, who's No. 2? I feel the same way about Crosby."