Just about the game for Sidney Crosby

PITTSBURGH -- Somewhere, buried behind that mass of electronics and humanity, sat Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby.

Some things never change, not even after more than 10 months of rehabilitation.

Still sweaty in his gear after the morning skate, Crosby was engulfed by two massive media scrums. As is his nature, Crosby patiently answered question after question about what it was going to be like to return to NHL action for the first time since he was felled by a concussion on Jan. 5.

He's sat in a thousand similar scrums since he became “the next one” as a teenager playing in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia. This is his milieu.

He has answered, what, 10,000 questions from reporters over the years?

Maybe more.

Yet this morning in Pittsburgh, the dynamics were dramatically different, even if the questions were all too familiar given Crosby's long journey back to the NHL after being sidelined with a concussion that left his future uncertain.

The buzz around this game has taken on the fever pitch of an Olympic medal game or a deciding game in the Stanley Cup final.

Yes, Crosby admitted, he was more than a little nervous about Monday's game against the New York Islanders, a game that will be broadcast live across North America and that already has observers smelling a ratings bonanza.

"I think if anything, the sooner you kind of get that first contact, whether it's giving a hit or taking a hit, I think it's important to get that over with early and get used to that routine. That's normal for me. That will come, hopefully. But, yeah, there's always nerves and that's normal," Crosby said.

But let's not confuse nervousness with apprehension.

Part of the reason that Crosby's comeback has taken this long is that nothing was to be left to chance. No one was interested in having any part of Crosby returning before he was fully ready.

On Sunday, he met one final time with doctors and all agreed that Monday was the right time.

"I don't have any [questions]. I think for me, I've just got to go out there and get in a game now. That's really what it comes down to," he said.

In short, it would appear that the hard work has been put in and the easy part will be the game. At least that's the plan.

"When you're getting ready, that's the tough part, practicing, going through each of those steps -- really, that's the hardest part of this, trying to get through each stage and each step,” Crosby said. “That's really all the preparation, that's really all the hard work. Now just got to go out there and do it.

"That's the way I look at it. I don't have to do anything, except to be ready to play like I normally would. Other than that, playing the game is going to help me itself, not anything I do right now at this point."

Crosby will play alongside longtime linemates Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis.

"Because that's probably the most comfortable spot for him to be in," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said Monday morning.

Kunitz acknowledged the team will likely be more protective than they normally are with their franchise player. "Definitely," he said.

But Kunitz insisted he's not worried about Crosby.

"I'm not fearful for him. As long as he feels ready, that's when the mind lets the body feel at ease," Kunitz said. "I'm going to expect the same things you always do. There is no limit to what you expect from him out there."

Teammate Steve Sullivan, with whom Crosby will play on the Penguins’ power play, has endured his own long rehabilitation from various injuries.

"I can relate to the fact that I know how nervous he is,” Sullivan said. “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."

Sullivan said that once the puck drops, it’ll all come back to Crosby.

Bylsma said he and Crosby have joked about how Crosby expects to play just 12 minutes Monday night.

"And I laugh at that and know he's dead wrong, that he's going to want to get out there immediately again after his first [shift]. He's going to want to get out there in a lot of different situations. He's going to want to get on the ice a lot more than 12 minutes," Bylsma said.

He added that if people thought the Penguins were stage-managing Crosby's return, they were wrong.

"And if anyone thought it was a predetermined date, my wife gave away the tickets to this game two days ago, so my family doesn't have tickets for tonight's game," Bylsma said.

There have been some parallels drawn between Crosby's return and the return of Penguins owner and longtime Crosby landlord Mario Lemieux back in December 2000.

Lemieux came out of retirement brought on by back injuries and Hodgkin's disease, and from his first shift he absolutely lit up NHL opponents (76 points in 43 games).

Crosby said he hasn't spoken to Lemieux about Monday's game but isn't sure he can measure up to that kind of comeback.

"Yeah, I remember it,” Crosby said. “He set the standard pretty high for first shifts in comebacks and stuff. It's pretty hard to match that. Anyone who has missed a length of time like that I think is just so happy to be back playing. Obviously, there's expectations, but I think you just try to enjoy being back and try and make the most of the opportunity."

As for his ability not to match Lemieux but himself, Crosby wasn't sure how that would unfold.

At the time of his concussion, he was leading all NHL scorers with 66 points in 41 in games.

"I just expect to be ready,” Crosby said. “I don't know at what level. As far as what I need to do out there creating things, I expect a lot and I've been working hard the last couple of months to make sure that when it's time to come back, I'm ready."

"Do I expect to be where I was in January last year? Probably not. But I expect to hopefully contribute."