Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Crosby finally can see the light

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby skates during a team practice in Vancouver, British Columbia October 5, 2011. The team was preparing for their game against the Vancouver Canucks to start the NHL hockey season October 6.(Reuters)

It's coming soon.

You can see it in the way the Kid is whizzing about the ice.

You can read it in his soft, self-assured smile.

You can hear it with the upbeat vibe in his voice.

Sidney Crosby will be playing again for the Penguins, probably very soon.

And whether that's next week or the week after, when he comes full circle from a career-threatening concussion, when Pittsburgh again can applaud one of the most amazing athletes in our city's history, when the NHL again has a face to go with the name, I can promise you after our conversation Tuesday at Southpointe that no one will savor the moment more than No. 87 himself.

He already has, in a way.

"I've thought a lot about that first game, tried to imagine what it will be like," Crosby said, still soaked at his stall from an exhaustive 85-minute practice. "And whenever I picture it in my mind, it's not just one situation. It's probably 10 or 15 that I've visualized."

He paused and smiled slightly.

"It starts with being in the room with the guys before the game. There's always a different feeling you have before it starts. You're lacing up your skates, you're looking around at your teammates, you're chattering a little. It's something you feel regularly when you're healthy, but when you haven't been out there a long time ... yeah, you can really look forward to it."

'I'm going to get hit'

It's been 17 days since Crosby has been cleared for contact, but the memo apparently hasn't circulated down to ice level. Time and again yesterday, the Penguins had a chance to hit Crosby but passed.

Even when Deryk Engelland shoved Crosby with enough force to knock him on his backside — maybe the hardest contact yet — the rugged defenseman said it was "not something I meant to do."

Crosby bounced right back up, and both players laughed.

"I think he embellished it a bit," Engelland teased later.

"He didn't get me that hard. I was off-balance," Crosby said. "Hopefully, I'll get a few more like that as time goes on."

Hopefully, that's soon. The Penguins aren't doing Crosby any favors by avoiding him.

At the same time, there's a reason the process as a whole has taken this long: Crosby isn't Mario Lemieux.

Which is to say, Crosby isn't about to reinvent himself to adjust for injury or illness, as Lemieux did with his many comebacks. When Lemieux would return, particularly from back trouble, he generally would stay on the perimeter, avoid traffic, slow things down.

Crosby's genes comes with one gear.

"Personally, I don't like to slow things down," he said. "There are a few guys who can do that. A guy like Pavel Datsyuk, he seems to have that knack."

Datsyuk, Detroit's brilliant forward, can go zero to 60 to zero on the same shift.

"I think I can do that in spurts. There are games where I feel the need to do that," Crosby continued. "But to say that I want to mold my game that way or to change it, no, that's not it. Over a 60-minute game, I'm not going to have as much success if I'm not attacking, being aggressive, creating turnovers and going after loose pucks."

That's Crosby's game. And that's one reason it's heartening to see Dan Bylsma keep Crosby with usual linemates Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis in practice. The more familiarity, the better. The last thing Crosby needs is to be put in a vulnerable position by a bad pass from an unfamiliar linemate.

Everything needs to be as normal as possible. Crosby needs to bump along the boards. He needs to carry the puck at top speed through the neutral zone. He needs to drive to the slot for the deflections he had only begun to master before the injury.

"It's going to take a little bit to get my timing, but my approach is going to be the same," Crosby said. "I'm going to be the player I've always been. That's my goal. That's why it's important that I'm 100 percent when I do come back. I'm going to get hit again. I know that. That's part of how I play. And hopefully, I'm going to give hits more than I take."

The scariest visual is Crosby being hit in open ice — think Eric Lindros and Paul Kariya — but Crosby shrugs that off, too, with good reason.

"Knock on wood, I've been OK at that to this point in my career," he said. "If I ever get caught with my head down in the middle of the ice, I'm going to pay for it. And that's true whether I had a concussion prior to that or not. If I'm in a dangerous area like that, that's my fault. Hopefully, that will be second nature for me, like it's always been."

I've heard grumbling about how long Crosby is taking to return. It's nonsense.

I loved how Kunitz put it yesterday: "When Sid comes back, we're all going to be relieved because we know he's going to be all the way back."

Crosby's getting there. His rushes up ice, tape-to-tape passes and top-shelf shots yesterday would have been breathtaking, except that it was him.

'A hard 10 months'

One part of Crosby will change: He'll embrace what he has more than ever.

When he scored Canada's golden goal at the Vancouver Olympics two winters ago, I had a feeling it might be the pinnacle of his career. I was wrong. He went on in the winter of 2010 to reach a level with the Penguins so extraordinary that Lemieux was moved to call Crosby's play better than that of his prime.

And then, it all came crashing down with those two head shots in January.

We all watched Crosby's ascent, but none of us saw the fall. None of us can know or appreciate what it must have been like. This is a kid who had known precious little adversity in life, whose love for hockey bordered on obsession, suddenly confined to dark rooms, dizzy spells and legitimate doubts that he would ever play again.

Crosby doesn't like to talk about the darker times, but he acknowledged yesterday, "It was a hard 10 months, no question. And you learn from it. It's the reason I'm so happy to be in the position I'm in now, so grateful for it, so excited about it."

He still isn't committing to a firm date. He'll accompany the Penguins today on their two-game West Coast swing, and there are five blank spots on the calendar before the Nov. 11 home game against Dallas.

Could that be the one?

The 11-11-11 date might hit a little close to home for the superstitious Crosby, whose first head shot came 1-1-11. So maybe Nov. 15 against Colorado is a better guess.

I asked Crosby what, beyond that pregame locker room scene, he has visualized for his return game.

"Just about everything," he said, smiling again. "Going to the bench with the guys. Hearing all the chatter. Having your hometown crowd behind you. Maybe, if it's a close game, feeling that intensity again. All of that. Every bit of it. It's going to be a lot of fun."


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