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The wait is over: Crosby returns Monday

by Alan Robinson
PITTSBURGH -- The suspense is over. So are the months of waiting. Sidney Crosby is ready to play hockey again.
It's the moment Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins -- as well as the NHL and many of its fans -- have been waiting for since the sport's most recognized star was diagnosed with a concussion Jan. 6 following hard hits in successive games.
Sidney Crosby is back.
Finally, there's no more speculation about the return date, no more nervous anticipation about whether No. 87 might not return until next week or next month. The Penguins' captain was cleared Sunday by concussion specialist Michael "Micky" Collins and team doctor Charles "Chip" Burke, and he will play Monday night against the New York Islanders at Consol Energy Center.


VERSUS to air Pengeuins-Islanders
With Sidney Crosby making his return to the Penguins lineup for the first time since January 5, VERSUS will air the Islanders/Penguins game at 7 PM. READ MORE ›
The 7 p.m. game will be televised nationally by Versus in the United States and CBC in Canada. The NHL Network and will have extensive coverage featuring full pre- and post-game coverage, Crosby's reaction following the morning skate and on-site analysis from Network analyst Barry Melrose and senior reporter Dan Rosen.
Across the street they're taking the roof off the under-demolition Civic Arena, where the Penguins played for 43 years, but the Penguins fans might threaten to lift the roof off Consol once Crosby hits the ice for the pre-game warm-ups.
"When he hops out before that game and comes out the tunnel, the building is going to go crazy," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said Sunday. "It's going to be something of a challenge for our guys to not go out and be spectators but, when he touches the puck for the first time, it's going to energize the crowd, and we're going to feed off the excitement in the building."
It won't just be the fans who are excited as the iconic Crosby -- who at this time a year ago was in the midst of a 25-game scoring streak -- makes the NHL's most-anticipated comeback since Penguins star Mario Lemieux ended his 44-month retirement on Dec. 27, 2000 -- scoring in the first-half-minute he was on the ice.
Bylsma, after speaking with his superstar on Sunday, likened Crosby's excitement level to that of his NHL debut on Oct. 5, 2005, against the New Jersey Devils.
"He's excited and he's anxious. He's been wanting to play hockey for a long time," Bylsma said. "Now that he is scheduled to play, the anticipation is coming to the forefront and he's excited."
And why not?
There have been hints since Crosby last spoke to reporters on Nov. 7 that his comeback was near; after that, he declined to speak, saying he wouldn't do so until there was a change in his status --or, until he was ready to return.
"He has been progressing and getting closer," Bylsma said.
Still, even his teammates didn't know when it might happen; center Jordan Staal recently joked that "you guys (reporters) know as much as we do," because his teammates were reluctant to press Crosby for details.
The Penguins expect this to be worth the wait.
At this time a year ago, Crosby, then 23, was on pace for the NHL's highest-scoring season in 15 years, piling up 32 goals and 66 points in 41 games. But his season ended abruptly after hard hits leveled by the Capitals' David Steckel on Jan. 1 in the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic and the Lightning's Victor Hedman on Jan. 5 left him with the first concussion of his career.
Initially, the Penguins didn't expect him to be as sidelined as long as he was -- the rest of that season and the first quarter of this season -- but concussions vary in severity. Crosby's concussion affected his vestibular system, the part of the brain that affects movement and stability, thus creating an extended layoff.
Crosby returned to practice nearly three months later, on March 31, with some hope that he might be available during the playoffs. But after his concussion symptoms returned in mid-April and the Penguins were eliminated in the opening round by Tampa Bay, Crosby's layoff extended into the offseason.

There were some setbacks then, too, as he experienced headaches, dizziness and a sensitivity to bright light and loud noises occasionally throughout much of the summer. But Crosby said he has been symptom-free since a few weeks before training camp started Sept. 17.
Since camp opened, Crosby often has been dazzling, showing off his speed, amazingly quick hands, lightning-like reaction and playmaking skills. Even Bylsma said he did some "pretty crazy things."
What Crosby has needed most since the season opened Oct. 6 was patience.
Crosby knew he needed time to get reacquainted with every aspect of the game, to return to game speed, to regain his timing and reflexes. He never believed his career was in jeopardy of being over -- despite the occasional rumor to the contrary -- and neither did the Penguins.
"Not whatsoever. Not at all," said Crosby, who did not speak to reporters on Sunday and won't again until after the pregame skate Monday.
Now, the question is when he can get back to the level he was playing at a year ago. For now, he will play with the same linemates he had most of last season, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis. James Neal, who has 12 goals, was expected to be on Crosby's line but, for now, will stay on a very productive line with Evgeni Malkin and Steve Sullivan.
"There will be some time before he totally feels comfortable and (gets) back to the level he was playing when he was on that points streak," Bylsma said. "But it's easy to see in practice that he's the best player on the ice, with his speed and the way he plays the game. He'll bring that to the game tomorrow, but it will take some time."
"But he's going to get there," Neal said.

Malkin, 'BizNasty' all-a-Twitter over Sid

The long-awaited return of Sidney Crosby for Monday night's game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders at Consol Energy Center (7 p.m., Versus, CBC) got plenty of attention among NHL players in the Twitterverse after the announcement about the star center was made Sunday.

Perhaps the simplest and happiest came from Crosby's fellow superstar on the Penguins, Evgeni Malkin.

"Sid will play tomorow)))))))87," the tweet from @malkin71_ read.

Steve Sullivan signed with the Penguins hoping to get the chance to play on a line with Crosby at some point. That probably won't come Monday -- coach Dan Bylsma said Sid the Kid would skate with Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz -- but it didn't leave @Sullivan26 any less excited.

"Looking forward to seeing 87 in the lineup tomorrow night. Consol will be rocking!" he said.

Penguins forward Tyler Kennedy (@tk1448) added: "Excited to see the number 87 back in line up!# Hottest ticket in town#"

And of course the news couldn't escape the attention of Twitter sensation Paul Bissonnette of the Phoenix Coyotes, who had his own humorous take on things.

"Had to drop myself in fantasy hockey today. Welcome back Sidney Crosby," read the tweet from @BizNasty2point0.
Bylsma also doesn't expect Crosby to initially play the 20 minutes or so a game he averaged last season, though the coach said power-play time could affect that.
"It will be watched and monitored," Bylsma said. "We'll see how he's doing, (watch) his conditioning level. When you get those guys, they always want to go out for one more shift. We may have to tie him to the bench a little bit."
Good luck with that. Crosby didn't wait this long to spend it sitting. It's part of the reason why he was the last player off the ice at numerous practices this fall, never wanting to waste a minute of his on-ice time
What the Penguins couldn't replicate in practice was the kind of hitting that occurs during an NHL game, even after Crosby was cleared Oct. 13 for contact during practice. Crosby was hit during practice in puck-battle drills and on rushes to the net, but nothing like he will experience in games.
"I don't think he got any crushing blows," Bylsma said. "But he certainly had a fair amount of contact, around the net. He hit the ice a few times. … He's done about as much as you can do in practice. But he's a hard guy to hit, and a hard guy to go after and hit hard."
Crosby will be returning to a slightly different game, too. Since Brendan Shanahan took over as the NHL's Vice President of Player Safety, there has been an emphasis on eliminating the type of head shots that can cause concussions. The Penguins and Crosby are very much in favor.
Crosby will return after missing his 100th career game to injury during his career, the Penguins' 3-2 loss at Florida on Saturday night. Still, the Penguins have proven to be remarkably resilient without their star; they are 34-19-8 without Crosby the last two seasons, a record any team would take.
Despite losing their last two, the Penguins are 11-6-3 for 25 points, tying them with Philadelphia for the top spot in the Eastern Conference and Atlantic Division, going into a three-game homestand against the Islanders, Blues and Senators.
There is a level of anticipation the Penguins will be even better now that their former Art Ross Trophy, Hart Memorial Trophy, Stanley Cup winner and Olympic champion is playing again.
Yes, the wait is over.
"Our team has learned to be a good team. Our team believed we could be a good team.  Our team really focused on how we need to play, and that's been a strength of the guys in that room," Bylsma said. "This year, with the anticipation of getting Evgeni Malkin back and getting Sidney Crosby back, there's a feeling that we could be a real good team."
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