Crosby’s Return: Who Will Hit Him First?

With this being the second short break the Penguins have had since Sidney Crosby was cleared for contact back in October, speculation has been rampant that his first game back this season will be this coming Friday, 11/11/11, at the CONSOL against the Dallas Stars. Reason being that there weren’t a lot of practice opportunities prior to that during their last short break, so he wasn’t able to get a lot of significant physical play in with his teammates. This break, there is plenty of time to practice and take some hits before the next game this coming Friday.

Crosby recently had another visit with his treating physicians and advised the media that not much has changed since last time. Even though speculation has been that he could possibly return this Friday, word as of late has been that it’s not looking likely (and, of course, no one has given a timeline or return date). Although, Tuesday evening re-ignited some hope as the Penguins were busy making moves leaving 21 active players on the roster and creating two spaces for call-ups and / or reactivation from injured reserve (IR).

So whether or not it’s likely that Crosby is back on the ice for Dallas, let’s go on the assumption he is and take a look at a few of the more physical players on some of the upcoming teams the Penguins will be playing over the next week to see who would be most likely to make the first big contact with Crosby. It’ll be a change of pace from all the typical Crosby talk.

DALLAS STARS (Friday, November 11th)
Steve Ott (6 ft., 190 lbs., 25 PIM) –
Ott is the Stars team agitator and he’s quite good at it. He relishes in getting under players’ skin and he has the chops to back it up as well, so don’t be surprised if he would get some pleasure out of being the first to take a run at Crosby. To date, Ott already has 25 PIM in 11 games played which illustrates his extreme physicality (those 25 PIM include two 5-minute fighting majors, and a 10-minute misconduct). There’s not really an argument that this would make Ott a top candidate for being the first to welcome Crosby back to the ice after his long recovery period.

Krys Barch (6′ 1, 237 lbs., 2 PIM) –
Although Barch is a heavy-hitter for the Stars, he’s only played 5 games this season since being reactivated from injured reserve (IR) after suffering a facial injury last season (February 2011); even though he only has 2 PIM this season, he has registered over 100 PIM in four of his past five seasons (and has led the Stars in fighting majors for the past five seasons). Coming back from his injury he’ll likely be more careful during his time on the ice (his current PIM may indicate that) and probably not  so eager to try much with Crosby. It’s possible, but more unlikely.

CAROLINA HURRICANES (Saturday, November 12th)
Tuomo Ruutu (6 ft., 205 lbs., 8 PIM) –
Ruutu is definitely not as physical or antagonistic as his older brother, former Penguin, Jarkko Ruutu. He’s a little more subtle when it comes to being aggressive, but isn’t afraid to use his big body to finish checks. He’s not so quick to drop the gloves but doesn’t shy away from doing it either although he has yet to get any majors / misconducts this season to this point. It’s highly doubtful that we’ll see him throwing his weight around near Crosby just to do it.

COLORADO AVALANCHE (Tuesday, November 15th)
Cody McLeod (6′ 2, 210 lbs., 30 PIM) –
McLeod has two 5-minute fighting majors and a total of 30 PIM in 15 games so I’d say that makes him another candidate to be willing to hit Crosby. He most recently earned himself 14 additional PIM in one single game last night; most likely due to the current losing streak the Avs are on (a 10-minute game misconduct with an additional two 2-minute minor penalties for boarding and cross-checking), so he could realistically be in the running with Ott and Downie for the likelihood of trying to hit Crosby, so keep an eye out for him too.

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING (Thursday, November 17th)
Steve Downie (5′ 11, 191 lbs., 42 PIM) –
Downie is off to a “good” start this season making friends on the ice with a total of 42 PIM (which includes a 2-minute unsportsmanlike conduct minor penalty, two 5-minute fighting majors, and two 10-minute game misconducts). He’s definitely a top contender for laying a good one on Crosby for sure and it’s long enough of a time for Crosby to get some good hits in from his teammates in practice until then. So it could very possibly be Downie to get physical with Crosby.

FLORIDA PANTHERS (Saturday, November 19th)
Matt Bradley (6′ 3, 200 lbs., 17 PIM) –
It’s not an outrageous amount of PIM, but they amount to three 5-minute fighting majors in 14 games so far this season. The Panthers added him during this past off-season specifically to provide a physical presence for them on the ice and he understands his role. He previously patrolled the ice for Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin, so there’s a chance he would only be interested in roughing up Crosby if it was provoked.

Taking all of this into consideration, you can probably expect either Ott, McLeod, or Downie to be most likely to make the first physical contact with Crosby. Don’t plan on witnessing a full-on, drag-out, knock-down fight, but it’s highly probable that they’d want to seek him out for the sole purpose of gaining the notoriety of being the first to hit him since they both have a tough reputation to begin.

And no one really knows exactly when Crosby will return or who will provide that initial blow, but one thing is for sure, it’ll be intense for fans until then and the moments / days following that contact until they’re able to breathe a little easier knowing that he really is symptom-free and fully recovered from his concussion. That much is inevitable regardless of who or when. Yet even though this is the reality of his return, it won’t make it any less exciting for the fans or especially for him.

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