- Scott Burnside, NHL
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It appears we are now days away from the return of Sidney Crosby to NHL action, Part Deux.
And once again the league is abuzz with anticipation.
After talking to team doctors at Monday’s home game against Phoenix, Crosby was cleared for contact and took part Tuesday morning in his first full-contact practice with the team since early December. He told reporters in Pittsburgh after Tuesday’s skate that he was looking forward to the next few days of full contact and that he hoped for a speedy return to action.
“I’ll give myself days with contact,” Crosby told reporters after Tuesday’s skate.
“We have two more practices this week. No sooner than Sunday, I would say, but I’m not going to sit here and put a date on it. It would be total guesswork. I just want to make sure I get through these days fine and that would be a great decision to make if I get to that point,” Crosby said of a possible return to action.
Anyone who has even peripherally followed the Crosby saga, from its beginning 14 months ago, on Jan. 1, 2011, at the Winter Classic in Pittsburgh, through to his explosive return in November and his shocking disappearance again in early December, and the subsequent controversy surrounding his diagnosis and treatment, the notion that his return to action could be as close as a few days is in some ways breathtaking, almost surreal.
From wondering whether Crosby’s season was over and whether he might ever return to the NHL stage he has dominated for such long periods of time since breaking into the league in 2005-06, to wondering if he will face Boston in a nationally televised matinee on Sunday qualifies as a "holy cow" moment.
If there was nervous anticipation at Crosby’s return on Nov. 21, when he scored twice and collected four points against the New York Islanders, expect both the nervousness and anticipation to be ramped up exponentially for this return, whether it’s on Sunday or not.
The Penguins had prepared for this eventuality by not placing Crosby on long-term disability, a move that would have opened up significant cap space that GM Ray Shero could have used at last Monday’s trade deadline but would have precluded Crosby from playing before the start of the playoffs, which begin April 11. It was clear the team’s plan in conjunction with Crosby and his camp was to have him work out until he was symptom-free and then get him back into NHL action as quickly as possible. It’s clear that they believed this moment was going to arrive sooner than later and Tuesday’s news suggests their strategy was well thought out.
Plus, with Crosby working like a dog to get back into game shape, regardless of the insurance it might have theoretically provided, the Penguins didn’t want to have to tell their captain he wasn’t going to be able to play until the playoffs.
Crosby has been skating with his teammates off and on for a month but had until recently been dealing with injury-related symptoms. But a renewed course of treatment that included dealing with soft tissue issues in the neck at the base of the skull that were only recently diagnosed has helped Crosby get to the point where he can now entertain full contact in practice and a relatively quick return to game action.
“The neck [diagnosis] certainly helped. I definitely felt like I saw improvement with the work on my neck and getting that loose. Was it everything? I don’t know, but it certainly helped. It’s something I’ll continue to do and stay on,” Crosby told the media in Pittsburgh.
"It's a good step for him," Shero told ESPN.com via email. "He's been working hard on and off the ice, so let's see how things go over the next few days."
This season, Crosby played eight games before he started experiencing concussion symptoms again. He had 12 points and there was talk in that brief period about whether he could jump back into the scoring race and what kind of impact he could have if he stayed healthy.
He didn’t, of course, and just as quickly discussion about Crosby focused on whether he would return at all, not when that might happen. And so any discussion about his impact on the Penguins as they head into the stretch run before the playoffs must be tempered by that ominous "if."
What does it mean if Crosby does return in the coming days and stays healthy?
What would it mean for any team to wake up one morning on the eve of the playoffs and find out the best player in the world was ready to rejoin the fray? It would mean, in short, everything.
In Crosby’s absence, the Penguins have continued to impress as a team that doesn’t just battle adversity but overcomes it. Even without Crosby -- and more recently, without defenseman Kris Letang, who is out with what is suspected to be his second concussion of the season (the team won’t confirm whether Letang has a concussion after being belted by Dallas Stars forward Eric Nystrom last week) -- the Pens have thrived. Their 2-1 victory Monday over Phoenix was their sixth in a row and they boast the second-highest point total in the Eastern Conference.
Evgeni Malkin leads all NHLers with 81 points and is a current favorite to win the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP. Netminder Marc-Andre Fleury has been outstanding and Dan Bylsma continues to show why he is the defending Jack Adams Award winner as coach of the year.
Although it’s unlikely the Penguins will catch the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference-leading New York Rangers, they have opened up breathing room as the fourth seed, which would mean home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
Crosby’s return would make them favorites to beat any of the teams they would face in the first round.
Beyond that, Crosby’s return suggests the Penguins are a team that would match up extremely well with the Rangers should those teams meet, and it’s fair to say the Pens would enjoy a significant edge in terms of offensive depth.
As was the case in 2009, when the Penguins won their first championship since 1992, being blessed with incredible depth and talent down the middle with Crosby, Malkin and Jordan Staal makes them a force to be reckoned with, regardless of the opponent.
We would argue that with a healthy Crosby, this team is actually better than the one that defeated Detroit in the 2009 finals. The defense is deeper and more talented, and Fleury is more mature as a netminder. James Neal’s evolution as a top-flight scorer and Staal’s continued evolution as one of the top two-way centers in the game give the Penguins a completeness that few teams can rival.
All of which makes the anticipation for the coming days and weeks keener, and the nervousness that will walk in lockstep with that anticipation more pronounced.
2dScott Burnside and Craig Custance