NEW YORK -- The sequel rarely holds up next to the original. In Sidney Crosby's case, it didn't have to: The sequel was good enough.
"You could see skill that speaks for itself," Rangers defenseman Marc Staal told NHL.com.
Crosby played exactly 16 minutes over 18 shifts Thursday at Madison Square Garden in his first game since Dec. 5 and only his 11th game in the last 14 1/2 months. He contributed to the Penguins' 5-2 victory over the Rangers with 2 assists and a plus-3 rating.
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Pittsburgh has now won 10 straight to pull within four points of the Rangers for first place in the Eastern Conference.
Perhaps the only negative Crosby took away from Thursday night was the fat upper lip he was sporting courtesy of a puck that he said jumped up and bit him in the first period. It was a minor wound from another successful return.
"I felt pretty good," Crosby said after his first game back since concussion symptoms caused him to miss 3 1/2 months. "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."
Crosby's second celebrated return to the NHL wasn't nearly as magnificent as his first in Pittsburgh on Nov. 21, when he blew away any predictions with a virtuoso four-point performance in a 5-0 win over the Islanders. That was the first game he played in 10 1/2 months.
But Crosby's night on Broadway was still hit for a myriad of smaller reasons, some far too microscopic for the scoresheet.
Perhaps the most notable, and clearly the most important to Crosby, was the mindset with which he approached Thursday's game. Instead of trying to initiate contact to reassure himself that he was OK to play, that the concussion symptoms were in fact gone, Crosby played as he normally as he would have if he were healthy this entire time.
It was slightly more difficult because of his ice-time restrictions, but Crosby still found himself approaching each shift with composure.
"I just tried to keep everything a little more in check," he said. "I was obviously pretty excited this time, but I just tried to stay focused on what I had to do. I didn't want to get caught cheating to trying to create things, just making sure I was focused on timing, all the little details that make a difference. That was really my focus here."
He admitted his mindset was different the last time around.
"I felt like last time I was probably trying to test myself a lot more than I needed to," he said. "Tonight, I wasn't looking for it quite as much. I was able to do that leading up to the games so I don't have to go looking for it in them. If anything, not that I was trying to avoid it, but I wasn't quite as quick to initiate it maybe as I was last time to try to test myself."
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma noticed as well. It was actually part of the game plan of working Crosby back into the lineup.
"We watched some shifts from the time he played before. In some of those situations that did arise," Bylsma said of Crosby seeking contact. "We did talk about it. We talked about what was happening, what was going through his mind in those eight games. I think he just had a different approach and a different mindset coming into this game as opposed to last time."
Crosby's approach is likely what allowed him to have as close to a perfect night for a guy coming back from a 100-day absence.
"I thought getting him in the game, playing him regularly, working him on the power play, it worked out pretty good," Bylsma said. "I thought it was a good start."
Crosby played an ideal amount of minutes per Bylsma, and took shifts with several different linemates, including Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke, Pascal Dupuis and Steve Sullivan -- and even center Jordan Staal, with whom he played on the wing for three shifts. It's a look Bylsma said he'd like to see more of this weekend when the Penguins play at New Jersey and at Philadelphia.
"That's something I haven't done since my first year," Crosby said. "With Staalsie, he's such a responsible centerman out there so you try to do your job and he carries the play up and down the ice."
Crosby looked comfortable at the point on the power play, but he was still able to win faceoffs in the attacking zone in order to spend some time down low, creating the different look Bylsma wants from his power play.
"That movement, I like seeing it," Bylsma said. "We just have to make sure we have a guy that can shoot it into the net, too."
"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." -- Penguins' captain Sidney Crosby
Also noticeable was Crosby's lack of fear. He went to the net, battled in the corners and played the puck the goal line. If there was a high traffic area to find, he found it.
"You saw the speed by the defenseman and he took the puck wide," Bylsma said, referencing a play Crosby made midway through the second period to burst past Rangers defenseman Stu Bickel. "He didn't get a shot on net, but that's the speed he brings to the ice. You saw that. You saw a lot of the same stuff."
Except for the playing time and thoughtful, careful approach -- though both should change with time.
"I think you probably overthink it a little bit early on just because you want to be sharp, but when you look back to when you play normally you really don't think a whole lot," Crosby said. "As time goes on you get used to doing that and things slow down a bit, but early on it's always a case that you're thinking about it more than you should."