The Kid Returns
PITTSBURGH -- James Neal might be the happiest person on earth now that Sidney Crosby is back.
"Every day," he sighed this morning as he observed the enormous scrum around Crosby's stall, which just happens to be next to Neal's. Eventually, he just gave up in frustration and went to stand in the hall outside the Pittsburgh Penguins dressing room.
Neal, acquired from Dallas after Crosby was removed from active duty Jan. 5 because of concussion problems, has had to live with the congestion around his stall every day for weeks now as the curious came to catch a hint from Crosby as to when he might return to the sport.
Well, tonight's the night, which means the questions and congestion may soon subside. At least until the playoffs.
"It should be a pretty amazing atmosphere," said Crosby, who did multiple media scrums this morning rather than hold a more formal press conference.
"I'm looking forward to it. I've missed it a lot. I'm pretty excited to get the chance to start here at home."
With four broadcasting outlets, including the CBC, providing a television account of the game, the New York Islanders will be the opponent and, oddly enough, Isles coach Jack Capuano has chosen tonight as the night for 21-year-old rookie goalkeeper Anders Nilsson of Sweden to get his first NHL start. The 6-foot-5 Nilsson played two periods on Saturday against Boston, but tonight will be something this youngster has never witnessed before.
"I'm not sure exactly how the emotion of the game, the emotion of the building, the emotion of team, how that will all play out," said Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma. "We'll all be excited to see how the building responds when he comes out."
Islanders centre John Tavares, who knows something about being the centre of attention, said it's important for he and his teammates not to be "overwhelmed" by the occasion.
"But hey, we don't get much time on CBC, on Hockey Night in Canada, so we're pretty excited about that," smiled Tavares.
Crosby will play on a line with wingers Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis. While there had been suggestions his minutes might be limited, that's not what Bylsma was saying today.
"He's going to want to get a lot more than 12 minutes," said Bylsma. "There's no pre-determined amount.
"He's going to have a lot of adrenalin going."
Crosby had one final meeting with his doctor on Sunday before deciding he was ready to play again. Kunitz learned of the news from his wife, Dupuis heard from his daughter and Bylsma was informed by GM Ray Shero while watching his son play at nearby Robert Morris University.
"I've just got to go out there and get in a game now," said Crosby. "That's really what it comes down to.
"I think anyone who has gone through this would be lying if they're not anxious to get those first couple of hits in, whether it's giving them or taking them. After that, things should be pretty normal.
"I just expect to be ready. I don't know at what level. But as far as what I need to do out there and creating things, I expect a lot. I've been working hard the last couple of months to make sure when I come back I'm ready.
"Do I expect to be where I was in January? Probably not. But I expect to hopefully contribute."
Crosby was leading the league with 66 points in 41 games last January when a head shot by Tampa Bay defenceman Victor Hedman just four days after another by Washington's David Steckel put him on the shelf for months.
After a setback in August, he opened camp with the Penguins on Sept. 17 and has been cleared for contact for several weeks. He said he's taken "a few" good bodychecks in practice, but hasn't faced anything like he'll face tonight in regular season action, particularly against an Islanders team that is struggling and saw games against Pittsburgh last season erupt into some ugly fireworks.
"I guess it's pretty fitting he comes back against us," smiled Isles winger Matt Moulson. "Hopefully, he'll have a little rust.
"But I'm sure he's 100 per cent, and you can't play lightly against a guy like that or you'll get exposed. We're going to play him hard."
The pre-game questions surrounding Crosby were as much about whether he'll face any heavy bodywork tonight as how close to top form he'll be.
"We're not going to be jumping at his head or elbowing him in the head or anything," said Moulson. "Hey, it's good for the game when he's back in the league. But I also don't think there's too many guys that have been feeling bad for Pittsburgh because they've been missing him."
As well as being cleared for contact, Crosby has travelled with the Pens of late to again get used to the rigours of the regular season. On Sunday night, he exchanged text messages with teammate Steve Sullivan, who missed long stretches of time in recent seasons with back problems, to discuss what to expect tonight in his first game back.
"I can relate to the fact that I know how nervous he is," said Sullivan. "I know that he played in his sleep last night. We sent each other a few texts last night and I told him I could relate to him and I wished I could tell him something but whatever I told him really wouldn't help him. As much advice as I got you have to go through it yourself.
"You know once the puck drops it's the game of hockey and it'll all come back to him."
Crosby didn't express any doubts he's ready to go.
"Everything's gone really smoothly the last little while," said Crosby. "I'm very comfortable and confident I was ready to come back.
"It's not one of those things you just wake up one day and its gone. You get a tolerance, start to get back to getting used to that stuff. That's all been really good. All that just gradually got better and better after camp started.
"Now's the easy part. Now you've just got to play. The hardest part of this is trying to get through each stage. Now just gotta go out there and do it, get ready to play like I normally would."
We've seen this kind of comeback story played out before in Pittsburgh to rave reviews. On Dec. 27, 2000, Mario Lemieux returned after a 3 1/2 year absence and scored against the Maple Leafs, notching a three-point night.
"He set the standard pretty high," said Crosby. "It's pretty hard to match that."
Crosby can now play a maximum 62 games this season, and while it's a longshot, if he can get back to top form quickly he might yet have a shot at the scoring title, with Toronto's Phil Kessel (29 points) and Philly's Claude Giroux (26 points) currently leading the pack. Back in the 1992-93 season, Lemieux managed to get into only 60 games and still managed to catch Pat LaFontaine for the Art Ross Trophy, finishing with an amazing 69 goals and 91 assists.
Lemieux has his personal battle with cancer. Could Crosby do something similar after dealing with concussion problems?
"I'm going to expect the same thing you usually do," said Kunitz. "There is no limit to what you expect from him out there."
Crosby's face, coincidentally, is on the game ticket tonight, although Bylsma dispelled any sense this was all a pre-packaged event.
"My wife gave our tickets away two days ago," he chuckled.