- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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TORONTO -- It was a play that likely didn't make the highlight reel, but it demonstrated just why the best player on the planet is back doing his thing.
Sidney Crosby stole the puck from Nikolai Kulemin inside the Toronto blue line seven minutes or so into the second period Saturday night, a Datsyukian-type theft that saw the Penguins superstar then quickly skate in on the Toronto goal and release a snap shot that Leafs goalie James Reimer didn't appear to be ready for, but, luckily for him, rang off the cross bar.
It was just one of many little plays from No. 87 in his first game in Toronto since January 2010 that underlined his healthy return to greatness.
You see, it's the little details that you get to see live in person from the game's great players that impress just as much as the more obvious highlight-reel stuff.
Sure, Crosby scored in regulation and then the winner in the shootout -- a 5-4 Penguins victory over the Maple Leafs -- to pad his NHL-points scoring lead to 40 points (12 goals, 28 assists) in 25 games.
But watch Crosby with or without the puck on this night and you appreciate that the full package has fully returned: little chip passes from in close, behind-the-back passes, a step on his pursuer, the sense of anticipation -- it was all there on display.
"I feel good. I feel comfortable out there," Crosby said after Saturday night's thrilling affair. "The timing is there; it took a little while to get that. I'm just happy to be playing a lot of games. That's the best way to get back into things, and we've had plenty of those."
Some 26 months after a concussion that nearly derailed his career, he's got it back to where he was before that injury. Or pretty close, anyway.
You may remember that on the eve of his unfortunate concussion in the Jan. 1, 2011 Winter Classic, Pens owner, Mario Lemieux, raised eyebrows by suggesting that Crosby, at the time, was more impressive than Lemieux ever was during his Hall of Fame career.
There was the growing sense during that time -- around the last two months of 2010 -- that Crosby was beginning to really leave the pack behind, taking the kind of step in his career that Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky had taken.
He was playing his best hockey ever.
I asked him after Saturday's game if he is back at that level.
"I'm getting there, but I kind of forget what that feels like, to be honest with you. It's been a while," Crosby said. "But I do feel comfortable out there, and I feel like every night I can adjust and find ways to create offense. Some nights are tougher than others, but, obviously, with the way our team is playing right now, it makes it easier for everyone individually when we're all going."
It certainly made you wonder over the past two years as Crosby battled through the ups and downs of his recovery how his career track would play out once he was back. Could he get back to that rarified air?
I mean, sure, he'd be great again. But how great?
Enter the greatest player ever to answer that one.
"The thing about the game of hockey is that there's always a lot of good players," Wayne Gretzky told ESPN.com Saturday. "Whenever a crop of guys goes through, we always wonder who will take the next step and sort of carry the mantle. You look throughout the league, you see guys like [Ryan] Getzlaf and [Corey] Perry in Anaheim, [Steven] Stamkos in Tampa, [Alex] Ovechkin and [Evgeni] Malkin. I've always been partial to [Henrik] Zetterberg and [Pavel] Datsyuk in Detroit -- they're pretty solid hockey players," Gretzky said.
"But in my mind, I don't think there's any question Sidney Crosby is the best all-around player in the game. His hockey sense is so strong and so solid, combined with his God-gifted talent of being able to see the ice, see the entire picture in front of him. And, most importantly, I don't care how good you are, if you don't have a work ethic, it doesn't matter. There's no question that each and every game, he's one of the hardest-working guys on the ice. In my mind, he's the best player in the game today."
Gretzky, like any other fan, certainly worried during Crosby's absences over the past few years just how it would impact him.
"For him to be able to get through all that and have the wherewithal to still have the capacity he plays with, that's impressive," Gretzky said. "And the thing about him -- he plays in all the dirty areas. He's never hesitant to go to the boards, go to the corners or go to the front of the net. As good as he is and as much finesse as he has, he's somewhat of a grinder, too, like a Messier- or a Bobby Clarke-style in the sense that he'll go anywhere to get the job done. That's what Sidney does. In my opinion, he leaps above anybody else, and there's some great players in the game today."
And that's just it, isn't it? Despite the concussion scare, Crosby still goes to the net hard.
Which is why every time he takes a hard hit, Penguins brass will hold its breath, just like it no doubt did late in the third period Saturday night when Crosby took a violent spill, tripping over a sliding Cody Franson of the Leafs, wiping out almost horizontally into the end boards, his helmet popping off upon impact.
But he got right back up and didn't miss a shift.
"I'm fine," he said afterward. "Got some air time there."
And there he was with the game on the line in the shootout, roofing a wrist shot over Reimer to end a thrilling game.
The game's first star on the night, Sid The Kid is indeed back.