Tampa Bay Lightning coach Guy Boucher prepared for each game of his club’s first-round playoff series with the Penguins as if Sidney Crosby would return to the lineup for the first time since he was sidelined with a concussion January 5.
“Oh, he’ll play,” Boucher said on the morning of Game 7. “We expect him to play, and play at his best. It wouldn’t surprise me if he played tonight.”
That didn’t happen. But, as it turned out, the Penguins might have gotten one of their star centers back if they went much further in the postseason. It just wouldn’t have been the one most were expecting.
“Maybe if we won the second round, I might have been able to play the third round and the Finals because, when I skated, it didn’t feel bad,” said Evgeni Malkin, who resumed skating April 21 after undergoing knee surgery in mid-February for a torn ACL and MCL. “It felt pretty strong, and I think I could have played this year.”
While Malkin was striving toward a comeback, however, Crosby’s attempt had been shut down when his concussion symptoms reoccurred as he stepped up his workouts.
“My expectation was that I wouldn’t play [again this year],” Crosby said. “But I was trying to make sure that, if there was any chance and it was possible to come back, I was ready and did everything I could to be ready for that. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out.”
Crosby was participating in non-contact practices and drills with the team, but abruptly stopped taking the ice about two weeks ago. The Penguins’ company line was that it was all part of Crosby’s planned rehabilitation schedule with his doctors. Friday, however, Pittsburgh’s captain admitted that wasn’t the case.
“I started trying to ramp things up a bit as far as working out and skating, and I got a little bit of symptoms,” Crosby said. “So I had a setback – [headaches] and all the stuff that goes along with it.”
Although he still had no specific timetable for when he might have been able to return – or be cleared for contact, for that matter – Crosby said he had been exerting himself at “pretty close to full speed” when his symptoms returned.
“When you do that, I think you get an idea of where you’re at. Obviously, I wasn’t quite there yet,” he said. “Basically I was in that progression phase of working out; it was just getting through each step, [and] you have to go through that stuff at least a week before you’re ready to move forward. If I felt symptoms when I did, I wasn’t close.”
That left both players with little choice but to stand by and watch as the Penguins went from a 3-1 series lead over the Lightning to a 1-0, Game 7 loss that ended their season.
“Of course we tried to stay positive every day, but it’s tough watching the game on TV,” Malkin said. “We tried to help the team in the locker room and on the road when we went to Tampa together. But the guys played very well, I think. Maybe they had a little bit of bad luck.”
Crosby put on a headset and observed the series from the general manager’s box, alongside GM Ray Shero and assistant GM Tom Fitzgerald.
“It was pretty neat to be part of that, especially in the playoffs when you’re constantly making so many adjustments [and] teams know each other so well,” he said. “[Tom] was more of a defensive forward and checker; when I watch a game, naturally, I look at more offensive stuff. So it was kind of neat to get his point of view and learn that way.”
While Crosby found value in the experience, however, he’d be just fine with not repeating it in his playing career.
“It’s not something I want to make a habit of,” he said. “Hopefully that’s the last time I’m up there in the playoffs.”
And now, with the Penguins eliminated, the pressure is off for Crosby and Malkin, both of whom can spend the long summer working toward next year.
“I’m staying here two more weeks to continue my rehab,” Malkin said, adding that Penguins strength and conditioning coach Mike Kadar will visit him in Moscow during the offseason. “They gave me a plan for the whole summer and, every day, I have work to do with my knee. My knee is pretty strong now, and I’m trying to get stronger for next year.”
Crosby’s training for next year will have to wait until he recovers from his setback.
“I think the biggest thing is just to make sure you don’t mess with it and, if you get a symptom, you know things are wrong and you don’t try to push through it. That’s when you really get in trouble,” he said. “You’re talking about your brain … you have to make sure you take your time and listen to your body.”
Still, the progress he’s made has Crosby feeling confident about being ready for training camp in September.
“It’s been really slow, but I’m not worried about that,” he said. “I feel like, from where I was a couple months ago, things were a lot better. Just being able to skate was encouraging. Hopefully, the next step doesn’t have any hurdles and I can get ready for next season as usual.”
“As usual” would have a nice ring to it for the Penguins, whose first-round playoff exit was a letdown after a season in which they faced an extraordinary amount of adversity and still managed to finish with the second-highest point total in franchise history.
“I think our expectations should be the same as they are every year – we want to win,” Crosby said. “If anything, what we went through this year should make our team even better. What we were able to do – I think half of [AHL affiliate] Wilkes-Barre was here at one point – that’s pretty incredible. What was it, 49 wins? We didn’t break stride with what we were trying to do.
“I think that’s going to help everyone, including me and Geno and all the guys who were out. We’re going to do everything we can to make sure our game is where it needs to be when we start next year.”