NEW YORK -- Game day.
What was once such a routine part of Sidney Crosby's life is now a cherished one.
With his father, Troy Crosby, watching from his usual spot way up in the stands Thursday morning, the Pittsburgh Penguins' franchise player hit the ice with his teammates at Madison Square Garden for what is to the other 700-odd players in this league a perfunctory exorcise.
Not for No. 87.
Because Crosby has played only eight games in 14 months, his career threatened, Thursday morning was anything but ordinary.
"You’re excited to get back out there,” Crosby said after the skate. "This is a big game. If anything, you’re trying to make it as normal as possible, if that’s possible."
A return to normalcy. Nothing has ever sounded so good to Crosby.
Of course, Thursday night’s game won’t be enough to bring that feeling. Nothing short of playing the remaining games of the season and playoffs will be good enough to bring back the feeling that all is well again.
Can he get back to where he was before the Winter Classic on Jan. 1., 2011, in other words the best player in the world separating himself from the pack? I remember having the likes of Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky, unprovoked, mentioning to me in separate conversations in November 2010 just how amazing Crosby was playing.
Can he get back to that? For now, it’s one game at a time. And this time, that’s not a cliché.
"I don’t expect to be where I was 14 months ago, but I expect to be at a pretty good level, create things and contribute,” said Crosby. "I’ll get a better idea of where I’m at once I start playing games, but I’m not going out there just to kill time."
With 14 regular-season games to go, is that enough time to find that A-game before the playoffs?
"I don’t know, I hope so,” he said. "That’s what I’m working towards. I’m going to do everything I can to do that. Whether it’s possible, we’ll see."
One thing’s for sure. He will not change his style. He plays the game in a direct line. He plays it hard. And that invites contact.
"You have to play the same way,” said Crosby. "When you hesitate, usually you’re in trouble. ... That’s why you practice hard, you test yourself and make sure you’re ready. I’m confident in that."
He’s picked a heck of a time on the schedule to return. Three road games in four days against Atlantic Division rivals. One wonders if the Penguins might not be wise to sit him out either Saturday or Sunday. Head coach Dan Bylsma said Thursday morning that yes, they’ve talked about the merits of playing it safe that way, but in the end just can’t look the player in the eye and tell him he’s sitting a game after everything he’s been through.
So yes, Bylsma said, the plan right now is for Crosby to play three games in four nights, and all 14 games remaining before the playoffs.
"There's really no thought in my mind that he's not going to play in all 14 games,” said Bylsma. "Would we think about certain scenarios? Maybe. But like I said, am I going to ask Sidney Crosby to not play in Philadelphia? It doesn't seem like that's a likely possibility in any regard."
Star blue-liner Kris Letang also returns to the lineup Thursday night. The Pens are locked and loaded. Just what a team with nine straight wins needs, right?
Really, they’re not too used to having all their big guns going at the same time. Amazingly, the Penguins have had only 10 games over the past two seasons where Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, their Big 3 centers, have all been in the lineup at the same time.
"You want to see how good you can be with all three of them in the lineup,” veteran Penguins forward Pascal Dupuis said after the morning skate. "We have guys that have stepped their game up. But it’s definitely great to see these guys in the lineup."
The benefit of playing nearly two years without a healthy lineup has forged an important resilience in the Penguins dressing room.
"This group shows it’s never going to quit," Dupuis said.
And yes, Malkin’s numbers for whatever reason actually dip when Crosby is back in the lineup. But let’s stop the nonsense about whether the returns of Crosby and Letang will somehow affect the focus of a team that’s on fire. Believe me, Bylsma is a happy man right now. Finding ice time for all these stars? It’s a problem he’d rather have than not.
Where it goes from there, even Bylsma doesn’t know.
Meanwhile, as Bylsma pointed out Thursday, this is a heck of a huge game for the Penguins. They’re six points back of the Rangers with one game in hand and play the Blueshirts one more time after Thursday night.
Both are must wins, Bylsma said, to have any chance at reeling in the Blueshirts.
The Rangers? If they see the charging Penguins in their rearview mirror, they’re certainly not letting on. Head coach John Tortorella wasn’t buying any of the hype Thursday morning about how big this game was.
"You’re not going to get me to bite on it, because I think it’s a bunch of bulls---. I really do," Tortorella said, like only he can.
While the Pens finally get healthy, the Rangers certainly are not for Thursday night. Backup Martin Biron starts in goal with Vezina Trophy candidate Henrik Lundqvist still not quite recovered from the flu. Captain Ryan Callahan and top-four blueliner Michael Del Zotto are also out.
I asked the Rangers' coach whether the new pressure the Penguins were suddenly exerting on his club could be a positive, given that his team has been in first place all season and hit March with not really much to play for until now.
"I don’t look at it as a new pressure,” Tortorella said. "Because we put pressure on ourselves no matter who we’re playing. We don’t spend too much time looking what’s going on in the standings. We really don’t. It’s something we addressed early on this year. And I think our guys have a maturity about how we go about it here. And that’s just worrying about us and worrying about today."
Besides, Tortorella insisted, first place in the conference is not something his team is focused on.
"You guys might think I’m crazy, but that’s how we think,” he said. "If you forget about what we’re doing today and get too caught up in what’s going on around, we’re not a good enough team to handle that. We need to worry about each and every day."
Just like Sid.