By Dejan Kovacevic, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Monday, November 21, 2011
Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby(notes) (87) waits for a resumption in play against the Tampa Bay Lightning during an NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh. Crosby will make his season debut on Monday, Nov. 21, against the New York Islanders, his first game in nearly a year since being sidelined with concussion-like symptoms. Crosby hasn't played since taking head shots in consecutive games in January against Washington and Tampa Bay. (AP)
When Sidney Crosby retakes the ice Monday for the Penguins, when he skates into that faceoff circle at 7:08 p.m., when he makes the final step in an almost 11-month climb back from a career-threatening concussion, there will rise from the seats a roar so loud, so loving that the combined volume and emotion might blow the rivets off Consol Energy Center's roof.
By about 7:09 p.m., I'm guessing, we'll hear our first gasp.
Then a sigh.
It might come with Crosby's first rush through center ice, with all 18,387 witnesses scanning the rink for any head-hunting Islander.
It might come with his first puck pursuit into a corner, when he gets checked or even nudged.
It might come with his first venture into the slot, as he tries for one of those deflections he had been perfecting just before his injury.
All of those, tonight and maybe for the foreseeable future, will be accompanied by fear of a new injury. Some will cringe, and others will look away. That's understandable. The nature of concussions is that one can lead to another and, the more one has, the worse they get. This is unlike any of Mario Lemieux's many comebacks in that regard, and it shouldn't be minimized.
But you know what?
Find your seat, whether at the arena or in front of your TV, then take a deep breath and enjoy a truly great day for hockey, the grand return of one of the most exciting athletes in our city's history.
Be very sure that the Comeback Kid himself will enjoy it.
When Dan Bylsma, the Penguins' coach, called Crosby yesterday after medical clearance was granted, the captain's tone struck Bylsma as familiar.
"I'd only liken it to the sound you hear in the voice of players going to play their first game in the National Hockey League," Bylsma said in a conference call. "He's been looking forward to this for a long time."
Crosby won't speak with the media until after today's morning skate. But in my recent interview with him, he spoke in emotional detail about envisioning this return.
"I've thought a lot about that first game, tried to imagine what it will be like," Crosby said Nov. 1 at Southpointe. "And whenever I picture it in my mind, it's not just one situation. It's probably 10 or 15 that I've visualized ... just about everything. 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."
Right, it's fun.
So let's enjoy it.
Let's remember that Crosby has been symptom-free, as best we know, since August. Every concussion is unpredictable, but that's a promising stretch. He has worked out feverishly for months, he's taken contact for weeks, and his practices have shown that his skill level is back to its usual stratosphere.
"He's been our best player in practice," Bylsma said.
Let's remember that the Penguins offer an exemplary supporting cast. They're 11-6-3, and they have enough team toughness that there apparently was no hesitation in clearing Crosby to return against the same New York Islanders who perpetrated that fight-filled fiasco Feb. 11. Deryk Engelland, Arron Asham and maybe even seldom-used enforcer Steve MacIntyre will take care of that stuff.
"We strongly believe in our ability as a team," Bylsma said.
Let's remember that this is — and should be — a gradual return. Let's not attach our expectations of Crosby to our memories of Lemieux. Crosby told Bylsma he probably will play only 12 minutes tonight.
"There's going to be some time before he totally feels comfortable," Bylsma said.
Let's also remember, as Crosby stressed in that interview, that his recovery period was extended for a reason: He has one hyperdrive gear, and he must be able to play at that speed.
"I'm going to be the player I've always been," Crosby said that day. "That's why it's important that I'm 100 percent when I do come back. I'm going to get hit again. That's part of how I play. And hopefully, I'm going to give hits more than I take."
Now that would bring a gasp of a much more welcome variety.