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Decade Review: Crosby's Return

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Pittsburgh Penguins

Penguins captain Sidney Crosby lined up for the opening faceoff against the New York Islanders in Pittsburgh on Nov. 21, 2011.

But this was no ordinary face off, and this was no ordinary game.

Penguins fans and the hockey world had waited over 10 months (320 days exactly) for Crosby to return to the ice following a long recovery from a concussion and neck injuries. As his recovery lingered on for weeks, then months, then nearly a year, many feared this day would never come, and that best player of his generation would have a promising career cut short.

So, a mixture of joy, relief and appreciation filled the arena that evening. Also filling the arena were signs reading "WELCOME BACK SID" and chants of "Crosby! Crosby!"

Pittsburgh's adopted son had returned.

Obviously, the biggest priority for everyone - from fans to the team to the players - was for Crosby's health. After all, he may be a god on the ice, but he's still just a man. Sports become secondary in events like this. Crosby's return meant that he would be OK, and that was a major relief to the entire hockey community.

But once the concern for his well-being was assured, the next lingering question was: would Sidney Crosby still be, well, Sidney Crosby?

Crosby suffered a head injury and had been away from the game for nearly a year. There was no telling how that injury would affect his abilities and skills. And the time away certainly had to cause some rust. So, could Crosby still be the dominant force that had registered a 25-game point streak before the injury?

It would take a little over five minutes for that answer to come.

Crosby collected the puck in the neutral zone, swooped around Islanders defenseman Andy MacDonald and lifted a backhand shot over the shoulder of goaltender Anders Nilsson for his first goal in 11 months. The arena erupted, and so did some cathartic verbiage from Crosby's mouth.

"I hope no one was reading lips at home," he joked following the game. "I couldn't hold that in."

Tweet from @penguins: YOU CAN'T WRITE IT ANY BETTER THAN THAT! SIDNEY CROSBY GETS THE PENGUINS ON THE BOARD IN THE FIRST! 1-0 #PENS!

By the time the final buzzer sounded, Crosby picked up two goals, including the game-winner, and four points. Crosby was back. And he didn't lose a step.

But what precluded that elated moment was a nearly year-long undulation of highs and lows. And it all began under the bright lights of Heinz Field on New Year's Day.

As Crosby was coming out of his own end with his head turned, he sustained a hit from Washington's David Steckel in the NHL Winter Classic. The issue magnified when he was hit from behind, his head slamming into the glass, by Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman a few days later.

The Penguins had back-to-back games on Jan. 5 vs. Tampa Bay and then Jan. 6 at Montreal. After the Lightning game, the team boarded a plane and flew to Canada. Unbeknownst to most, Crosby wasn't feeling well and left Montreal to go back to Pittsburgh.

After the contest against the Canadiens the media was given an update on Crosby's situation from head coach Dan Bylsma.

"Sidney has a mild concussion and that's the update on Sid," he said. Bylsma would add that Crosby's recovery time would be "about a week."

Tweet from @penguins: Coach Bylsma said Crosby had a mild concussion and may miss a week

What was initially diagnosed as a short-term issue ended up persisting. It would be three weeks before Crosby was cleared to begin off-ice workouts. Then another six weeks (March 14) before he began skating. Crosby joined his teammates on the ice for the first time in dramatic fashion in Sunrise, Florida. 

After media rumors circulated that the team wanted to give another player the 'C' in Crosby's absence, in a show of solidarity with their captain the Penguins took the ice for practice at BB&T Center all wearing makeshift C's taped to their chest- except Evgeni Malkin, who wore the Russian version, 'K.'

The Penguins would lose a heartbreaking Game 7 to Tampa Bay in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs that year without Crosby or Malkin, who suffered a knee injury that required surgery.

Fans anticipated Crosby's return for the 2011-12 season following an entire summer. But Crosby experienced concussion symptoms in late August and a media conference was held in early September with doctors Michael Collins and Ted Carrick.

Collins delivered the message: "I'm very optimistic that we'll see Sid have a very long, fruitful NHL career." And Crosby squashed any rumors that he was contemplating retirement: "I did not give a whole lot of thought to that."

That was also the same media conference where Crosby was referred to as "a Ferrari" and that it was "Christmas for Sidney Crosby."

Crosby opened training camp on Sept. 17 with a "no contact" helmet in front of a cacophonous crowd gathered to see him. He would continue to practice in such a fashion for a month, answering media questions daily about his status: "no update." It had to be a frustrating period for Crosby to deal with the recovery and the pestering media questions.

On Oct. 13, he was cleared for full contact. For another five-plus weeks Crosby would practice and continue to field the same questions: "no update." Until, on Nov. 20, there was an update. The Penguins announced that Crosby would be playing the following day against the Islanders.

Tweet from @penguins: Crosby Returns to the #Pens lineup Monday vs. NYI: http://t.co/cCsKtou2

A long line of media entered the locker room and surrounded Crosby's stall that morning, Nov. 21, after the morning skate. They asked about his return and how soon he'd be back to his old self.

"I've never been away from hockey this long. I'm just excited to be able to play again," he said. "It's hard to compare where you are without playing a game. I expect to be back there eventually. I don't know how long it's going to take."

Five minutes. It took five minutes.

Crosby was back. All was right with the world. And Collins was right when he said: "we'll see Sid have a very long, fruitful NHL career." Since those dark days, all Crosby has done is lead the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cup championships, win two playoff MVP awards, one NHL scoring title, one NHL MVP, one NHL goal-scoring title, two best player awards as voted by his peers and one Olympic gold medal.

Crosby was back. And better than ever. And in his true dramatic fashion, he gave us a night we will never forget.

"It was an amazing night," Crosby said. "It was extra special."

The Penguins were arguably the most successful NHL franchise over the last decade (2010-19). They made the playoffs every season while becoming the first team to win back-to-back Stanley Cups in nearly 20 years. The team provided many memorable moments over that 10-year span. In this Decade Review series website writers Sam Kasan and Michelle Crechiolo, who have been with the team the entire time, highlight the 10 storylines and moments that stand out to them from the past 10 years.

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