PITTSBURGH—They say no player is bigger than the game, but it’s tough not to feel that Sidney Crosby IS hockey. And if absence makes the heart grow fonder, the return of Crosby to the NHL is a blessing for the player, the league, and the game.
Crosby dominated in his first appearance of the season for his Pittsburgh Penguins, scoring backhand goals early and late in the game and adding two assists in between in an easy 5-0 win over the visiting New York Islanders.
Four points in his first game in almost a year.
And he did it in just 15:54 of ice time. He started the evening in 707th place in overall scoring for 2011-12, but by the end of the night he had moved up 347 positions to a tie for 359th—after one game.
"It was amazing," Crosby said to NHL.com. "It was far beyond anything I expected. It was amazing, it was special."
If someone had told Crosby on January 5, 2011, that he would not play another minute of hockey for ten and a half months, he would have called that person crazy. Yet, the after-effects of a concussion first suffered during the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day against Washington had been so severe that, indeed, it took him 320 days to fully recover.
Crosby played his first hockey tonight before 18,571 frenzied fans at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh and millions more watching the game on television sets around the world. And let’s face it. Anyone who knows hockey, knew that Crosby would return and be a dominant player.
What no one knew — or knows — is how he’ll respond to hitting and being hit regularly, whether his career will last one more game or another thousand.
Tonight, he was sensational and brilliant, just as he had been when he left the game. He had several good scoring chances, made several sensational passes, dominated the faceoff circle (14 for 21 or 67%), and led by example.
"There were a lot of things special about the evening, just how dynamic he was," Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. "It was a pleasure to be behind the bench and watch it."
Islanders coach Jack Capuano helped make it a big night for number 87 by starting 21-year-old Swede Anders Nilsson in goal. It was the tall goalie’s first career NHL start and came on the heels of his first NHL appearance two nights ago against Boston.
Drafted 62nd overall by the Islanders in 1989, Nilsson might be a fine prospect in the long run, but he was out of his elements on this night, overwhelmed by the occasion and Crosby’s brilliant return.
A day before the game, the team announced that Crosby was ready to go, and coach Dan Bylsma did his part by revealing that Crosby would play between wingers Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis.
The final stage of Crosby’s recovery was to add the physical element to skating, and he suggested he got "a few" good checks in practice with teammates, giving him confidence that he was ready for full contact at the NHL level.
Crosby took the opening faceoff against John Tavares and immediately created two good scoring chances for his linemates. Five minutes into the game he took a nice little pass in centre ice from Dupuis at full speed, cut in behind the defence on the right side, and roofed a backhander over Nilsson’s glove as the big goalie went down in the butterfly position.
The crowd went berserk — Sid was officially back!
"As the game went on, I felt better and better," Crosby said. "On the goal, I just tried to get up in the play and Pascal (Dupuis) pushed the puck over and I was able to get some speed, able to get a good shot away."
Number 87 set up Brooks Orpik for a goal later in the first period and a third Pens goal from Yevgeni Malkin early in the second. Crosby closed out the scoring with the only goal of the third period, his bad-angle backhand fooling Nilsson.
All in all, the timing was perfect for Crosby to return. The Islanders are one of the league’s weaker teams, and playing at home against a rookie goalie eased the return even more. Crosby bumped and was bumped, but there was no serious or controversial contact at all. Referees Steve Kozari and Ian Walsh had no problems handling the game which featured ten minor penalties.
Meanwhile, just a four hour drive to the east, Alexander Ovechkin had another quiet night, picking up one assist as Washington beat Phoenix, 4-3. The great Sid vs. Ovi rivalry of bygone days has been dormant during Crosby’s absence, but maybe the return of 87 will inspire "Great-8" to loftier heights in the coming weeks and months.
In the meantime, fans can only hope that Crosby continues his brilliant play and stays healthy. If he does, the Pens will become Cup favourites once the playoffs begin in April 2012.
"I feel like I've been waiting forever to play," Crosby said. "Obviously, I'm very excited."
- with quotes from NHL.com