PITTSBURGH – There were lofty expectations surrounding Sidney Crosby’s long-awaited return to NHL action, and the Pittsburgh Penguins captain delivered almost immediately with a goal fit for a superstar.
Crosby scored on his first shot of the season, opening the scoring of Pittsburgh’s game against the New York Islanders on Monday. He collected the puck near centre ice, carried it into the Islanders’ zone, muscled his way past Islanders defenceman Andrew MacDonald and flipped a backhand over goaltender Anders Nillson.
The goal, at 5:24 of the first period, came on Pittsburgh’s first shot of the game.
Crosby wasn’t done there. He scored on a backhand from a sharp angle in the third period, ringing the puck off the post and past Nillson, and added a pair of assists.
For the Stanley Cup champion and Olympic gold medallist, this was more proof that Crosby knows how to deal with the burden of great expectations.
He’s experienced the pressure to perform at an elite level since he was a 13-year-old whose immeasurable talent made him a household name throughout Canada. The same pressure he felt as an 18-year-old debuting in the NHL in 2005, and as a 22-year-old carrying the weight of an entire nation at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
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What figured to be the most routine of November regular-season games, a Monday night Islanders-Pittsburgh matchup, was transformed into perhaps the NHL’s most anticipated when the Penguins revealed Sunday that Crosby would play following a 10 months-plus concussion layoff.
Suddenly, tickets that were selling online for US$150 doubled and tripled in price.
“It’s been long,” Crosby said as dozens of reporters created a logjam around him after Monday’s morning skate. “I’ve never been away from hockey for that long, so I’m just excited to play again.”
Even with so little advance warning, TV crews and reporters from two countries poured into the Consol Energy Center on Monday, eager to hear every one of Crosby’s words, analyze each one of his shots and shifts. The ABCs of hockey – CBC, RDS, TSN, and ESPN, USA Today among them – all were there among many, many others.
The crowd roared as Crosby’s name was announced during the pre-game skate, and fans held up signs that read “Welcome back Sid.” A loud chant of “Crosby” lasted until just before the U.S. national anthem.
The Ringling Brothers circus appeared at Consol Energy Center only two weeks ago, but this was an even bigger attraction than that: the Sidney Crosby media circus.
Everyone wanted to see Crosby again. On the ice. For real, and not just in practice. Even the opposing team.
“It’s obvious we realize the magnitude of this,” said Islanders centre Josh Bailey. “It’s huge. It’s great for the game when you’re getting your best player back. It’s been a long time coming and you never like to see anyone go through what he’s gone through. We know how hard he’s worked to get back. It’s exciting for everyone.”
Make that a nervous excitement.
While the hockey world waited to again see the player who was dominating the NHL scoring race at this time last year – when Crosby was on a 25-game scoring streak – there also was a bit of anxious anticipation.
Everyone also wanted to see how he would respond to getting hit in or near the head.
“We’re all going to hold our breath the first time he gets hit,” Penguins forward Steve Sullivan said. “That’s without a doubt. Everyone is going to kind of wait. Everyone wants to see. Everyone wanted to wait to see (when he was coming) back, now it’s wait until he gets hit for the first time.”
Crosby has talked about what he went through during a layoff that began following successive hard hits to the head levelled by Washington’s David Steckel on Jan. 1 in the NHL Winter Classic and again four days later by the Lightning’s Victor Hedman. He played that Tampa Bay game because there was no indicated following the Washington game that he was concussed.
He returns to the game having made no equipment changes. And he’s ready to be bodychecked.
“I think anybody that has gone through this and missed this amount of time you’ve got to make sure you get involved early and get that first hit under your belt,” he said. “Maybe that means having to initiate that more myself in order to do that. But anybody that has gone through this realizes that, yeah, there is a feeling-out process to get back into it.”
Crosby said the concussion prevented him, for months, from watching TV or listening to music, and it affected his stability and ability to move freely in crowds. Most of all, it prevented him from playing the sport he loves, the sport he dominates like no other, the sport that needs him out front as a gate attraction and TV draw.
“I’ve tried not to think about how long it was going to be, but the months kept adding up,” Crosby said. “It’s all behind me now and I’m looking forward to getting started.”
While his Penguins teammates, until now, have been reluctant to explain what Crosby went through during the weeks and months in which he couldn’t play, Sullivan offered some candid insight.
“He could do everything on the ice, but mentally, in his head, he would get a little bit foggy,” said Sullivan. “But he could skate and work and do everything on the ice. How he felt afterwards was what was stopping him from coming back.”
Now, more than two months since training camp began and a month since he was cleared for contact during practice, Crosby is ready to play games again. It will be a busy week, too, with home games Wednesday (Blues) and Friday (Senators) and a Saturday night game in Montreal.
Not exactly the best way for Crosby to ease himself back, especially since he knows it will take some time for him to return to top speed, to totally regain what linemate Chris Kunitz calls his unmatched skill set.
Sullivan, who missed a season and a half with a back injury from 2007-09, has an idea what Crosby will be going through.
“The first couple of games are adrenaline, you get through it on adrenaline, and then there’s that little lull where the wear and tear of a regular season kicks in,” he said. “For him, (after) having that huge high of coming back, there’s going to be a dip. But he’s extremely strong mentally and prepares himself like no one other, so his play might not dip as far.”
When Mario Lemieux ended his 44-month retirement on Dec. 27, 2000, scoring in his first half-minute on the ice against Toronto in another highly anticipated game, the Maple Leafs talked afterwards of spending too much time standing and watching.
The Islanders, losers of 11 of 13, know they can’t do that against a player who has 18 goals and 62 points in 33 career games against them.
“If you’re not playing him hard, if you’re not finishing your check on him, he can make you look stupid,” Islanders forward Matt Moulson said.
And that might have been the smartest thing anyone in either dressing room said.
“It’s something I’ve thought about a lot over the last 10 months, so it’s pretty exciting,” Crosby said of his
much-anticipated return. “You don’t always get this anxious for games. This is one I can definitely say I’m anxious and excited for.”
The hard part? That’s all in the past, Crosby insisted. All those months of concussion testing, of doctors’ meetings, of working out, of dealing with setbacks and symptoms, of practising with no hope of playing that week or that night, are over.
“Now is the easy part. Now you just have to go play,” Crosby said.