Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby is surrounded by reporters at his locker after participating in a game day morning skate in preparation for his return to NHL hockey action against the New York Islanders, in Pittsburgh, Monday, Nov. 21, 2011. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
PITTSBURGH, Pa. - Sidney Crosby gave no hint beforehand of how he expected to play in his first game in nearly 11 months. No predictions. No speculation.
Now we know why.
The Pittsburgh Penguins would have accepted an average Crosby in his first game in nearly 11 months—a routine performance, a regular night at the office. Instead, they got the extraordinary. They got Crosby at his mid-season, peak-form best.
Crosby magically scored the game's first goal on his first shot since Jan. 5, scored again in the third period and added two assists during the NHL's most-awaited comeback game since Mario Lemieux's return in 2000 as the Penguins roughed up the New York Islanders 5-0 on Monday night.
Choose an adjective befitting the superlative, and it worked on this special night: Dazzling, exceptional, brilliant.
No one in the hockey world knew exactly what to expect as Crosby, hockey's biggest star, played his first game in 321 days following his prolonged layoff with a concussion that caused him considerable discomfort for months. But few probably expected him to be this good, this fast, this dominant.
Or be this much like the Sidney Crosby of old.
"Just being back out, I can't describe it," Crosby said.
He's not alone.
Even the score was the same as when Lemieux returned from a 44-month retirement to collect a goal and two assists against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Dec. 27, 2000, in the last NHL comeback to generate this much interest.
"That was a great moment," said Crosby, who watched that game on TV in his hometown of Cole Harbour, N.S. "Now for me, I'll have a great memory of this one."
Already one of the NHL's top teams, the Penguins now have a superstar looking just like the player who was dominating the NHL scoring race at this time a year ago, when Crosby was on pace for the league's highest scoring total in 15 years before he was hurt. At the time, he had 32 goals and 66 points in 41 games, or exactly half a season.
"I knew he was going to back to 100 per cent on the ice, where he left off last year," defenceman Kris Letang said. "And that's what he did. He took his rehab seriously, and the team did too. They gave him time, and he came back great."
Crosby showed not a speck of rust from his extended absence and was the fastest player on the ice from the very start of a memorable night. He helped set up a Chris Kunitz shot off the crossbar on his very first shift–shades of Lemieux getting an assist only a half-minute into his comeback–and was a motivated and driven player from the start.
And who could have scripted this any better–Crosby grabbed a Pascal Dupuis pass in stride on his third shift, accelerated to the net and, while fending off defenceman Andrew MacDonald, lifted a hard backhander under the crossbar only 5:24 into the game. Islanders rookie Anders Nilsson, making his first NHL start, never had a chance.
"The atmosphere was very electric," said goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who stopped 29 shots in his 21st career shutout. "It was just loud and fun. Sid had a goal early on, so you couldn't have written it any better."
It never got any better after that for the Islanders, who dropped their 12th game in their last 14 overall and their 13th in a row in Pittsburgh, a city that isn't very hospitable to them even when Crosby isn't playing.
For Crosby, the first-place Penguins and the league that has long awaited the return of its signature star, this was as good as it gets.
"No matter what happened, I was going to make sure to give it my best effort," Crosby said. "I've been waiting for it for a long time and I'm happy it went well."
He also took a few hard hits–the kind that can't be handed out in practice–with Travis Hamonic shoving him in the end boards during the first period. Crosby quickly jumped up, not shaken a bit.
"I'm glad I got that one over with early, it gives you some reassurance. I don't think I needed it, but it's always good in the process to get that out of the way early," said Crosby, whose father, Troy, watched from a back-row seat.
The standing-room crowd of 18,571 in Consol Energy Center was predictably loud and supportive, holding up "Welcome Back Sid" signs by the thousands while chanting "Crosby, Crosby" as a huge No. 87 was displayed on the scoreboard before the opening faceoff.
There were signs everywhere–one read "Merry Sidmas"–from a crowd that came prepared to welcome back Crosby no matter how well he played, and was rewarded with a superb performance.
"There were a lot of things special about the evening, just how dynamic he was," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "It was a pleasure to be behind the bench and watch it."
In the press box, more than 250 credentialed reporters were on hand, about as many as a Stanley Cup game has.
"I think the media caused a big stir, so it was kind of a season-opener or a playoff-type atmosphere," Kunitz said. "You definitely had a lot of energy in the building. It brought a different emotion to our game."
During the morning skate, Penguins forward Steve Sullivan warned it might take any player coming off an extended layoff a few games to regain his timing, his top speed and his game legs, even if he managed to play a game or two on adrenalin.
Crosby looked as if he hadn't missed a shift, much less half of one season and one quarter of another. He showed his playmaking abilities as he set up the Penguins' second goal following a four-minute break between shifts late in the first period. His backhander from the left wing boards found defenceman Brooks Orpik at the point for a one-timer that beat Nilsson to the stick side at 16:29.
The score was only 2-0 but, given the emotion and the energy generated by the Crosby comeback, it was all but over.
It was a difficult assignment from the start from Nilsson, whose only previous NHL playing time was a 40-minute stint during a 6-0 loss to Boston on Saturday night. Crosby's comeback didn't make it any easier for a team that has been outscored 11-0 in its last two games.
"I know I can play better," Nilsson said. "But they got Crosby back and you can see how good he is, how much he helps Pittsburgh. You got to see how good he is in real life."
Especially on the third goal, scored by Evgeni Malkin on a power play with Crosby assisting 3:17 into the second period. Crosby drove hard to the net after coming off the bench and was turned aside by Nilsson, but got the puck back and fed it to Letang at the point, who in turn sailed a hard pass to Malkin near the left post for his 10th goal.
Crosby didn't figure in Pittsburgh's fourth goal, scored by Sullivan off Malkin's set-up only 2 ½ minutes later. The big lead allowed Bylsma to start trimming Crosby's ice time a bit, given the Penguins play three more times in the next five days.
Not that Crosby was done.
He finished off the unforgettable night with his second goal, slamming a hard backhander off defenceman Steve Staios and by Nilsson after carrying the puck from behind to net to along the right-wing boards 2:06 into the third period.
"It was an amazing night," Crosby said.
With so much attention on Crosby, Fleury quietly went about his business as the Penguins won their sixth in a row at home and improved to 12-6-4.
Now, for Crosby, it's one game down, two goals scored and the rest of the season to go.
"It was extra special," Crosby said.