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Crosby's return a night to remember

by Dan Rosen /
PITTSBURGH -- There were 18,571 people that walked through the turnstiles at Consol Energy Center on Monday night. They probably ought to put their ticket stubs in safe places.

"That's not how I would have played my first game, I know that," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said while shaking his head and smiling.

Sidney Crosby's return to the NHL after a 10-and-a-half-month layoff turned into the kind of night that hockey fans everywhere will tell their grandkids about.

If someone in the future asks them where they were when Crosby came back and put up 4 points in a 5-0 win over the New York Islanders, odds are they won't hesitate to give an answer with extreme detail, no matter if they were elated or deflated.

Sidney Crosby made sure his return to the ice would be a memorable one by posting two goals and two assists in a 5-0 Penguins win over the Islanders. (Photo: Dave Sanford/NHLI)
They'll probably say exactly what they did when Crosby scored his first goal on his third shift just 5:24 into the game. Some might quickly recall No. 87 getting cross-checked by Milan Jurcina and later knocked to the ice by Travis Hamonic, only to pop back up on both occasions, dust himself off and go right to the net.

Then again, if you're a fan like Penguins GM Ray Shero, you might find yourself at a loss for words.

"Amazing," was all Shero could say following Crosby's remarkable return to the Penguins lineup for the first time in 320 days.

Others like Bylsma, who admitted he was as much of a fan as he was a coach Monday night, will talk about the experience of being up close and personal with the spectacle of Crosby's first game since Jan. 5.

"That was special in a lot of ways," Bylsma said, still shaking his head. "Special to see him step on the ice even for warmups, for the game, for the opening announcement, and then the first draw. It's a faceoff and he battles like it was the last draw of the season. Some of the plays, the way he played, his goal -- there were lots of things special about the evening. Just how dynamic he was in this game, it was a pleasure to be behind the bench watching that."

Crosby has always demonstrated flair for the dramatic when it comes to the big situation (see his shootout goal in the inaugural Winter Classic, his performance against Washington in the playoffs, scoring the overtime-winning goal in the gold-medal game) -- he added another notch to his star-studded belt Monday.

He scored a goal in his third shift and picked up a primary assist on his fifth shift. He added a secondary assist on his 10th shift and added another goal shortly after coming onto the ice for his 16th shift, his first of only five in the third period. He finished with 21 shifts in total.

After just one game, Crosby found himself in the talk of the NHL scoring race. He trails Toronto's Phil Kessel by 25 points with 61 games to play.

"We've got 61 games left and his pace is pretty good right now," Bylsma said.


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In addition to his 4 points, Crosby also looked sharp in other areas. For instance, he won 14 of 21 faceoffs, good for 67 percent. He had a game-high eight shots on goal and even added a blocked shot just for good measure. He did all of this in just 15 minutes and 54 seconds of ice time, including only 8:44 after the first period.

"There was a lot of energy in store there after missing a long time," Crosby said.

He hadn't played since Jan. 5, when a hit from Victor Hedman knocked him out of action indefinitely with a concussion. Crosby went through months of trying to figure his way out of the fog that overtook his life.

These were scary times for the game's biggest star.

Crosby finally returned to the ice in last season's playoffs, but he never played. There were rumors from sources other than Crosby or anyone in his inner circle that his career was in jeopardy, that his parents, the proud Troy and Trina, were trying to convince him to retire in order to protect himself for the rest of his life.

None proved to be true.

He returned to practice, albeit without being cleared for contact, on Sept. 17. He was finally able to take some hits starting Oct. 13. More than a month later, Crosby was back on the ice, creating magic on a hockey night in Pittsburgh tailored solely to him.

At Mario Lemieux's request, the Penguins made up signs for the fans that read "Welcome Back Sid." The pregame video on the scoreboard was all Crosby all the time. The fans gave him a standing ovation when he came out for warmups. The roar when he was introduced as a starter was, simply put, unbelievable.

"The goals and assists were great obviously, but just being back out there, I can't really even describe it," Crosby said. "It was exciting. I was anxious. There were a lot of different things going through my mind. But the main thing was the joy of playing and that's something I've missed for the last 10 months."

If Crosby had any rust, he shaved it off prior to the game, leaving only his November moustache.

Oh sure, he talked about getting used to the game speed, playing pucks in his feet, and feeling tired after playing far fewer minutes than he's used to. But, just ask the Islanders if they noticed any of those tiny issues bothering No. 87.

Crosby showed his speed burst and wicked backhander in scoring his first goal. He knew the Islanders were caught flat-footed and he went right around their defense, motoring past Andrew MacDonald before he used the backhand to beat rookie goalie Anders Nilsson.

"We want our centerman to go with speed, support and come from behind, but we haven't seen it quite like that in a long time," Bylsma said. "We've seen stuff like that before, but it kind of played out in slow motion when he got the puck right around the red line and had that burst of speed."
"That was special in a lot of ways.  Special to see him step on the ice even for warmups, for the game, for the opening announcement, and then the first draw. It's a faceoff and he battles like it was the last draw of the season. Some of the plays, the way he played, his goal -- there were lots of things special about the evening. Just how dynamic he was in this game, it was a pleasure to be behind the bench watching that." -- Dan Bylsma
Crosby showed his passion after scoring that goal, yelling out an expletive that can't be repeated here.

"Yeah, don't read lips," he said laughing. "Part of waiting to play is you're also waiting to get that first one. It was pretty exciting. I couldn't hold that in."

Crosby showed he could take a hit, something everyone watching was curious to see. He got jostled by Jurcina and knocked down by Hamonic, but popped right back up, showing no ill effects at all.

"Once you get on the bench and you realize everything is good that's always a good feeling," Crosby said. "To come out of that OK, it gives you some reassurance. I don't think I needed some, but it's always good in this process to get a couple of those out of the way early."
Crosby also showed he hasn't forgotten how to find his teammates.

He used a backhanded pass from the left-wing wall to set up Brooks Orpik with a one-timer from the point that sailed past Nilsson 16:29 into the first period. Crosby helped set up Evgeni Malkin's power-play goal 3:17 into the second period by finding Kris Letang at the point. Letang's slap-pass went to Malkin, who shoveled the puck past Nilsson.

Crosby's backhand was again on display early in the third period when he used it to score his second goal of the night.

"You think what could have happened or you weren't sure how he would react to it, but he's a world-class player so he's already a head above most guys in the League anyway," Chris Kunitz said. "Tonight he went out with little rust and went right back to being his normal self.

"I think to watch him score the first one and get a big night, it's a great story."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twittert: @drosennhl
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