So, after the dust has settled on Sidney Crosby's triumphant return to the NHL stage, what have we learned? Well, let’s take a look.
1. Maybe nothing: The New York Islanders should have received a guest fee for lying down like a pack of dogs in what should have been a statement game for them. And what was with head coach Jack Capuano’s decision to go with the kid, Anders Nilsson, in goal in his first-ever NHL start? Memorable? Maybe down the road, Nilsson will remember the night as being memorable, but to leave “franchise” netminder Rick DiPietro on the bench tells you all you need to know about this sad sack franchise. Why not give DiPietro the chance to thwart Crosby’s return? Hey, he’s only under contract until the end of the century, so it’s not like he won’t get another chance at the Penguins, but to throw Nilsson to the wolves in his first NHL start was borderline manic. Hello, Charles Wang, your team has left the building. Given the adrenaline rush Crosby felt stepping onto the ice for his first game since Jan. 5, the rest of the week will give us a more accurate gauge of where he’s truly at as the Pens entertain rejuvenated St. Louis, Ottawa and then travel to Montreal, the home of Crosby’s boyhood hockey idols.
2. No one enjoyed the buildup to this game: The days of wondering if Crosby was going to play, when he was going to play, the breathless reports and the endless speculation was grueling for the fans and the media. But for a moment, let’s imagine what it was like for Crosby. “I feel like I was waiting forever,” he said after the game. But I guess the wait was worth it. If there was ever a player who appears to have been perfectly ready for a return to the NHL game after a significant injury, it was Crosby. Not suggesting that Crosby broke new ground with his “I won’t be back ‘til I’m completely ready” mindset, one that was shared by the Penguins and the team’s concussion specialists, but Monday’s performance should reinforce the idea that the old days of holding up two fingers, and if a concussed player guessed within one or two he was deemed good to go back on the ice, are long gone.
3. A team on the rise: Someone asked Crosby after the morning skate Monday if he was worried about bringing the rest of the team down given how well they’ve played overall, since he went down with the concussion Jan. 5. “That wouldn’t be good,” he quipped. Not an issue, obviously, but the return of Crosby opens a world of opportunity to head coach Dan Bylsma. Crosby played mostly with regular linemates Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz, but the option of putting Crosby with Evgeni Malkin on occasion has always been an intriguing one for Bylsma. It hasn’t always worked out. Is it possible to have too much skill on the ice at one time? But now with the emergence of James Neal as the kind of pure scorer the Penguins imagined he would be when they acquired him from the Dallas Stars at the trade deadline in March, the Penguins are a better squad now than they were when they won the Stanley Cup in 2009. Their defense is better and with Jordan Staal, Malkin and Crosby all healthy for the first time in almost a year, no team in the NHL boasts as much talent and size down the middle. Throw in Neal and Steve Sullivan, who stands to benefit from Crosby’s return on the power play even if they don’t end up playing on the same line, and an already imposing defensive team can now light it up with any team in the league and jumps to the head of the queue in the “who’s your favorite to win the Cup” debate.
4. The devil is in the details: That’s what they say anyway, and with Crosby that’s always been the hallmark of his game. His game is not stagnant -- hello Alex Ovechkin -- it’s constantly evolving. In his first game back since Jan. 5, we saw evidence that Crosby hasn’t been just lollygagging around the ice since training camp. He was 14-7 in the faceoff circle. He made those deft little passes in heavy traffic that only the best make. He battled for pucks in what coaches like to call the dirty areas -- in the corners and in the slot -- and for the most part won them. Crosby ended up with four points, but he was part of dangerous chances that could have seen him have six or seven points easily. As for the physicality, he was tested by the Islanders only modestly, but that’s as much a function of Crosby’s ability to avoid the big hits. It has been so with most of the great ones for generations. Still, there was enough to allay the initial fears of how he would react to being hit.
5. This has not been the best calendar year for the game of hockey: There were the tragic deaths of players/former players Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak. There was the horrific crash of the Kontinental Hockey League's Lokomotiv team charter that sent shock waves across the hockey world. We saw Marc Savard’s career likely come to an end after multiple concussions, and saw others such as Max Pacioretty narrowly escape career-ending injury in other plays. Now, we’re not suggesting the return of Sidney Crosby somehow lessens the sorrow from those awful events, but his return does remind us that the game is resilient, and its resilience is one of its most powerful qualities. Former NHL head coach Marc Crawford perhaps put it best, telling us that Monday “was a great game for Sidney Crosby, a great game for Pittsburgh and a great game for the league.” True that.