Thanksgiving came early in Pittsburgh this week, as the Penguins announced Sunday that captain Sidney Crosby will play his first game in nearly 11 months Monday against the New York Islanders.
Crosby was cleared to play earlier in the day after visiting with Dr. Micky Collins, a nationally renowned expert in sports-related concussion, and Dr. Chip Burke, the Penguins’ team physician.
“I’ve spoken with Sid the last couple days and thought maybe we’d be getting closer,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “I would liken it to the sound you hear in the voice of a player that’s going to go play in their first National Hockey League game. He’s excited. He’s anxious. He’s been wanting to play hockey for a long time.”
Bylsma said Crosby will continue to wear the equipment he’s been wearing since resuming practice with the team, and that he was not aware of any specific modifications that would be made to his helmet. He’ll slide right back into the lineup alongside longtime wingers Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis. “That’s a line he’s played a lot with and has the most experience with on our team,” Bylsma said.
What Crosby doesn’t have much experience with, however, is returning from a long-term injury like the concussion that resulted from two blows to the head in early January, which makes it impossible to predict how quickly – or even if – he may be able to return to the form that had him on pace for a career year last season before it all came to a crashing halt.
“With any player who’s been in practice and hasn’t been in games, it’s different,” Bylsma said. “The game is going faster. There are different scenarios, more scenarios. I think there’s going to be time before he totally feels comfortable and back, certainly, to the level that he was playing when he went on that [25-game] point streak.
“But the one thing I think is easy to see is that, in practice, he’s one of the best players on the ice. He is the best player on the ice with his speed and the way he plays the game, so he’s going to bring that into the game tomorrow. It’s been close to a year for him to play a system, play to the expectations of where he needs to go on the ice … we’ve laughed about that a little bit today, that he might need a refresher course when he comes to the rink tomorrow morning.”
And, while Penguins fans figure to hold their collective breath the first time Crosby is on the receiving end of a big hit, his coach doesn’t expect the 24-year-old star to shy away from contact.
“I don’t think he got any crushing blows in practice, [but] he certainly had a fair amount of contact,” Bylsma said. “In the last four weeks, he’s initiating going to the net, going into those [high-traffic] areas, finding contacts, winning pucks. He has been hit and gone to the ice a couple times. He has crashed into the net and, as our players found out, he’s a hard guy to go after and hit hard. So he’s had a fair amount of that and I know he’s confident in those areas. I’m confident you’ll see him go to the net hard tomorrow night.”
Probably not as often as the highly driven, competitive Crosby would like, however.
“I think Sidney’s adrenaline is going to be so high that he’s going to be tired out a little bit quicker than he normally would,” Bylsma said. “He thinks maybe he’s only going to be able to play 12 minutes, and I laugh because, once Sidney Crosby gets to 12 minutes, he’s certainly going to want the 13th minute if it’s a [certain] situation. We may have to tie him to the bench a little bit.
“I don’t know exactly what a number would be, but it’s certainly not going to be rushing right back into 20-plus minutes, where he was at before. There are certain circumstances that, if they arrive in the game, he’ll get into more, like if there are more power plays … but he certainly will be watched and monitored. We’ll see how he’s doing and what his conditioning level is in terms of game situations.”
In terms of protecting Crosby, Bylsma will look to his team’s overall toughness as opposed to any specific players. “I think we showed last year, and we show now, that we’re going to be a tough team to play against. We’re going to be a team that plays a physical style and backs each other up with our play and if things get rough on the ice. I don’t think that’s going to change, regardless of who’s in our lineup.”
What’s certain is that Crosby’s presence in the lineup is bound to create an electricity in the Penguins’ home rink Monday night – one that will likely rival Mario Lemieux’s last comeback, across the street at Mellon Arena, in December 2000. And his teammates will have to make a concerted effort to avoid getting dazzled by the show.
“I think there will be some challenge for our guys to not go out and be a spectator, watch like all the fans are going to watch and see what happens when Sidney Crosby touches the puck for the first time,” Bylsma said. “That will be a challenge, and that’ll be a part of the leadership of the guys in that room. But I also think it’s going to energize our guys and our team. They’re going to feed off the excitement that’s going to be in the building.”
Bylsma expects his players to respond that way partly because they’re motivated – “we’ve come off a[n 0-2] road trip where we haven’t played our best hockey,” he said – but also because they’ve grown as a unit in the 10-plus months that their leader has been sidelined, finding ways to win despite his absence and long-term injuries to other key components of their lineup.
“Our team has worked on becoming a team, not just Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and not just relying on those guys. We’ve tried to play a certain way and I think our players believe in that. Without them, that certainly was tested by the eyes of the people looking at us. When you win or lose a hockey game, you immediately talk about the lack of people in your lineup. [But] I think you saw our team learn we could be a good team. Our team believed we could be a good team.
“I think, this year in particular, with the anticipation of getting Evgeni Malkin back [from knee surgery] and the anticipation, at some point down the road, of getting Sidney Crosby back, there’s a feeling that we could be a real good team. We’ve been able to win some hockey games here through the first 20 games and, starting Monday, we’re going to see that team with Sidney Crosby back.”