PITTSBURGH -- So, in the end, isn’t that why we love sports?
To see what is possible? Or more to the point, whether the seemingly impossible is possible?
To see what the great can achieve especially when faced with long odds or when the expectations are incredibly high?
Even if you’re not a fan of Sidney Crosby or the Pittsburgh Penguins, even if you loathe him, as fans have always loathed the greats like Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux and Patrick Roy because they happened to play for another team, surely there was a shiver of anticipation at Crosby’s return to the NHL on Monday night after battling through concussion symptoms for more than 10 months.
And when Crosby swept around New York Islanders defenseman Andrew MacDonald just 5:24 into his first game since Jan. 5 and roofed a backhand shot over rookie netminder Anders Nilsson’s shoulder, surely there was a moment of grudging respect, even from those outside the Penguin nation.
By the time Crosby added his first of two assists late in the first period, dishing a delicate backhand pass that Brooks Orpik hammered past Nilsson, was there anyone watching anywhere that didn’t understand that this was going to be one of those rare nights where expectation and anticipation were rewarded in spades?
By the end of it, as Crosby fought off giant Islander defenseman Milan Jurcina for possession of the puck in the Islander zone and then quickly turned to backhand home his second goal early in the third, surely even the most strident anti-Crosby fan had to pause for a moment and say, “Damn, how good a story is that?”
Bylsma doesn’t usually come out to the bench for the warm-ups, but he did Monday night so he could see the crowd’s response to Crosby.
“There was a large part of me that was a spectator and a fan of the game tonight,” Bylsma said.
Pittsburgh forward Matt Cooke merely shook his head as reporters gathered around him in the crowded Penguins locker room after the game.
“Guess he’s ready to go,” he deadpanned.
“It’s Sidney Crosby. I mean, the guy loves the stage and he loves to play,” Cooke said.
Crosby’s performance was eerily reminiscent of Hall of Famer and Pittsburgh owner Lemieux’s return to action back in December 2000. Lemieux had been out of the game for 3 1/2 years, recovering from chronic back problems and Hodgkin’s disease. He started on fire against the Toronto Maple Leafs and began a run for the ages as Lemieux defied his own failing body and collected 76 points in 43 games. He was a beast, a man nearing the end of his career who seemed to rediscover a passion for the game that had dwindled over the years.
He would go on to help Canada win a gold medal at the ’02 Olympics in Salt Lake City to accompany the two Stanley Cups he won as captain of the Penguins.
Crosby, of course, is nowhere near the same point of his career that Lemieux was when he made his emotional return. Yet Crosby shared not just significant time away from the game because of injury, but that uncanny ability to rise to the occasion no matter the size of the stage.
It was Crosby’s goal that gave Canada a gold medal at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, and though the stage Monday was certainly less imposing, this was a night where Crosby could have been excused for having some nerves and could have been happy with just getting through this first game.
But that is not Crosby’s way, and instead he dominated in a way that the great ones always seem to, seizing the moment and turning jittery questions about how he would react to the physicality of NHL play into emphatic answers.
“Just being back out there, I can’t even really describe it,” Crosby said.
“It was exciting. I was anxious. A lot of different things going through my mind,” he said.
After he scored his first goal, Crosby was caught on camera watching the replay and smiling and joking with his teammates.
“Hopefully people weren’t reading my lips at home,” Crosby said.
Not sure if former NHL head coach Marc Crawford, now a national broadcast analyst, was reading Crosby’s lips, but he was reading the center’s expression, and it was one of relief.
“It was almost like he was saying, I’ve still got it,” Crawford told ESPN.com.
“He has to leave this game with just a world of confidence.”
Crosby joked Monday morning that he was just hoping to contribute, and that he wasn’t thinking about returning immediately to the player he was at the time of his concussion when he was the NHL’s leading scorer.
But Monday’s performance suggests the space between the uncertainties of Crosby’s career post-concussion and being that top-of-the-line player is much narrower than most believed.
There was a one-timer during a second-period power play that narrowly missed, a close play at the side of the net, the quick passes to find open teammates. He won 14 of 21 faceoffs and was plus-3. Late in the game, Bylsma had Crosby out with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, and the trio came up with three terrific chances on one shift. If there were any shifts that didn’t result in some sort of offensive creativity, there weren’t many.
True, Crosby’s virtuoso performance came against an Islander team that has won just twice in their past 14 outings and may now be the worst team on the circuit. But with Malkin clicking with Steve Sullivan and Neal, and Jordan Staal seeming to have put his own injury woes behind him, this is a Penguin team that looks to be as dangerous as the team that made back-to-back Stanley Cup final appearances in ’08 and ’09, the latter trip resulting in the team’s first Cup since Lemieux was captain in 1992.
“Coming back from being out almost 11 months and he dominates a hockey game like that, it’s pretty special,” linemate Pascal Dupuis said.
“You got a feeling Sid’s back and he’s back for real. He’s got his game back and he means it,” he said.
As the final seconds ticked down, Crosby was on the ice and the fans rose as one to salute him.
No one is suggesting, really, that this performance suggests an assault on the current NHL scoring leaders, whom Crosby has given an 18- to 20-game head start. But would anyone, even those who live to loathe No. 87, be at all surprised if that’s exactly what transpires in the coming months?
Crosby has said that watching Lemieux’s historic comeback as a teenager has always been a special memory for him. Monday’s return against the Islanders will likewise hold a special place for the young man for whom special isn’t just an adjective but seemingly a way of life.