Monday, November 28, 2011

Steelers survive, as Chiefs’ season slips away

By Chris Burke
November 27, 2011

KANSAS CITY, MO - NOVEMBER 27: Tight end Weslye Saunders(notes) #82 of the Pittsburgh Steelers catches a touchdown against the Kansas City Chiefs during the first half on November 27, 2011 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images)

Here’s what the Steelers do after Sunday’s sloppy 13-9 win in Kansas City: Shrug and move on.

Pittsburgh controlled the time of possession and forced three Chiefs turnovers, yet if not for the Chiefs’ Anthony Becht inadvertently tackling his own teammate, Jackie Battle, on a 3rd-and-2 deep in the fourth quarter down 13-6, this one might have at least headed to overtime.

But without much from Ben Roethlisberger or Rashard Mendenhall, and with Troy Polamalu leaving early in the first quarter due to a head injury, the Steelers still survived a road test and kept a leg up in the playoff race.

So, even if it was an uninspired performance against an overmatched opponent, Pittsburgh can put this game in the win column and try to forget about it — just like it did with its three-point Week 3 win over Indianapolis and it four-point win over Jacksonville in Week 6.

Things aren’t so easy for the Chiefs.

They had a chance to pull off a big win Sunday night, when no one gave them a chance coming in. The Kansas City defense, which has given up 30 or more points four times and seen opposing offenses top 40 twice, turned in an inspired effort. All night, Roethlisberger had to run for his life, in and out of the pocket, even as Pittsburgh’s talented receiving corps stayed covered downfield.

But with Tyler Palko at the helm for the second straight game, the Chiefs’ offense generated very little.

In the first half alone, Palko fumbled a snap — allowing Pittsburgh to recover in Kansas City territory — and then tossed two head-scratching interceptions, throwing right to Steelers defenders with nary a Chiefs receiver around. Over the two games Palko has started, Kansas City has scored 12 points and zero touchdowns.

The Chiefs now find themselves three games back of Oakland in the AFC West with three weeks to go. Coming up on the schedule: at Chicago, at the Jets, vs. Green Bay and Oakland, and at Denver.

To stay in the division race, as Kansas City believed it could when it claimed Kyle Orton this week, the Chiefs likely need to win every single one of those games. It’s a task that looks virtually impossible.

Is Orton, a guy who fell out of favor in Denver, the one and only piece missing here?

It’s hard to believe that’s the case, though Sunday’s defensive effort at least gives Kansas City something to build on.

We might not need to dig too deep to figure out the difference Sunday: Pittsburgh, for all its faults and all its key injuries this year, is a playoff team and one of the AFC’s elite; Kansas City, from Week 1 when it lost Eric Berry in a blowout loss the Bills, has not been able to overcome the obstacles placed in front of it.

Cassel’s injury, and Palko’s subsequent insertion into the starting lineup, was probably the last blow. And it’s not fair to pin this all on Palko, either. The Chiefs lost their last two with Cassel under center — both at home, to Miami and Denver. Even if Cassel had stayed healthy and Orton had worked his way to Chicago instead of Kansas City, the Chiefs’ road to the playoffs would have been bumpy at best.

It might be impassable now, after they let a major opportunity get away Sunday.

It was definitely a shame how the game ended, too, with Dwayne Bowe halfheartedly going up after a Palko pass and opting not to extend for the catch, instead letting it land in the arms of Steelers defensive back Keenan Lewis to seal the Pittsburgh win.

Bowe’s effort stood in stark contrast to what the Chiefs did for nearly 60 minutes Sunday. Was it pretty? Was it even effective? Heck no, but Kansas City laid it all on the line against a very good Steelers team.

But that wasn’t enough, to no one’s surprise.

Pittsburgh will go back to the drawing board — and back to the trainer’s table in Polamalu’s case — and will more than likely pull it together before a two-game homestand against division rivals Cincinnati and Cleveland.

Who knows what’s next for the Chiefs? Orton will be in the starting lineup next Sunday, when Kansas City heads to Chicago.

Maybe that change at quarterback will combine with a renewed defense to spark a surprising Kansas City run. The better bet might be that what we saw from the Chiefs Sunday is what we’ll continue to see for the next five weeks.

There’s some talent there and the Chiefs are playing hard, but this hasn’t felt like their year from Day One.

Claiming Orton gave Kansas City a moment to act like it could contend with the Pittsburgh Steelers of the world, but Sunday proved that the two teams are not on the same level right now.

Palko's goofs save Steelers

Monday, November 28, 2011

KANSAS CITY, MO - NOVEMBER 27: Quarterback Tyler Palko(notes) #4 of the Kansas City Chiefs looks to pass during the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on November 27, 2011 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Early last week, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin marveled that his team was 7-3 and shared first place in the AFC North Division despite a turnover ratio of minus-10. He pledged the players wouldn't tote it around "like luggage," but made it clear they were aware of it and planned to do something about it.

Well, the Steelers are 8-3 after beating the Kansas City Chiefs, 13-9, Sunday night with an offensive performance that only can be described as lousy.

Their turnover ratio is a slightly less hideous minus-8 despite a lost fumble by running back Mewelde Moore at the Chiefs 2 and an interception by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on what he called "a horrible throw."

Thank you very much, Tyler Palko.

You know that name, right?

Palko, a former Pitt quarterback and West Allegheny High School star, made his second NFL start for the Chiefs, subbing for injured Matt Cassel. Going in, the Steelers defenders figured they were going to have a lot of fun. They always enjoy playing against an inexperienced quarterback.

But this was ridiculous.

A fumbled snap by Palko that was recovered by defensive end Brett Keisel? Interceptions by cornerback Ike Taylor, safety Ryan Mundy and corner Keenan Lewis on three horribly thrown balls by Palko, the last one coming with 28 seconds left and the Chiefs driving for a winning touchdown?

Ten points for the Steelers?

By now, Chiefs fans know Palko's name, as well. For the second consecutive game, they watched him lead the offense to no touchdowns. They spent much of this night booing him. That's when they weren't chanting for his backup, Ricky Stanzi.

"Four turnovers for us? I hope this opens the flood gates," linebacker James Farrior said, aware the defense produced only six turnovers in the first 10 games.

For the Steelers, this was a good night for Palko's largesse. They easily could have lost without it and blown any chance of finishing ahead of the Baltimore Ravens in the division. They played that poorly on offense and coached that poorly, period.

It's true, the Steelers were without three stars. Linebacker LaMarr Woodley missed his third consecutive game with a hamstring injury. Safety Troy Polamalu left during the first series with concussion-like symptoms, the second time he's done that in the past six games, which has to be a concern in the days ahead. Center Maurkice Pouncey also left early after he got sick.

But all of that is no excuse for the Steelers' many mistakes that went far beyond their two turnovers.

"I kind of have mixed feelings," Roethlisberger said. "You're happy to get the win, but you're disappointed the way your offense played. But that's what a team is all about. Our defense stepped up huge tonight and carried us."

When is the last time you saw a team penalized twice in the same game for having 12 men on the field? It happened to both the Steelers offense and defense.

There were six holding penalties against the Steelers, including two that were declined by the Chiefs and one that was offset by a Kansas City penalty. There also was an illegal shift penalty that was declined.

The offense, which had to settle for a field goal after Taylor's interception gave it the ball at the Chiefs 7 to start the second quarter, converted just three-of-11 third downs and produced 290 yards.

The offense was awful all the way around.

"I've been saying for a while now that I felt like we've been steadily improving every week," Roethlisberger said. "This felt like we had our first setback tonight. But I don't think it's anything to panic about it. I don't think it's anything that can't be corrected."

The coaching was just as bad as the offense.

There was a successful fake punt by the Chiefs in the third quarter. That the Steelers somehow fell asleep during that play when Palko and the Kansas City offense were doing nothing is beyond comprehension.

And how about the timeout the Steelers called with 4:21 left in the third quarter when they faced a fourth-and-4 at the Kansas City 39? Roethlisberger tried unsuccessfully to draw the Chiefs offsides and then, instead of taking a delay of game penalty and punting from the 44, he called timeout. Punter Jeremy Kapinos booted the ball from the 39 out of the end zone.

"That's my fault," Roethlisberger said. "That's bad management by me."

Lucky the Steelers didn't need that timeout late in the game.

Lucky the opposing quarterback handed them 10 points.

Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. More articles by this author

Steelers don't have to be pretty

Monday, November 28, 2011

KANSAS CITY, MO - NOVEMBER 27: Defensive back Keenan Lewis(notes) #23 of the Pittsburgh Steelers intercepts a pass intended for wide receiver Dwayne Bowe(notes) #82 of the Kansas City Chiefs late in the fourth quarter on November 27, 2011 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri. Pittsburgh defeated Kansas City 13-9. (Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Only John Harbaugh could take a Gatorade bath after this one.

The Steelers stumbled, stutter-stepped and struggled to put away an eminently willing Kansas City victim Sunday night at Arrowhead Stadium. It was awful to watch on every level. But we also know by now how it turns out: Ben Roethlisberger keeps plugging away, the backups admirably step up for injured starters, the defense makes the big stop, and everyone exhales.

Steelers 13, Chiefs 9.

Come on, tell me you weren't nervous that Tyler Palko would go 70 yards there at the end.

You were?

Hey, feel free to mail any complaints to the winners, care of "Best Team in the AFC."

In general, sure, the Steelers were lousy. Roethlisberger and his receivers had little chemistry from long range. Rashard Mendenhall found few holes against the NFL's No. 27-ranked defense. Mewelde Moore fumbled near the goal line. The offense never made it past the Chiefs` 39-yard line in the second half, for crying out loud. And the defense should have absolutely overwhelmed Palko, the former Pitt quarterback who upchucked passes that one of his old WPIAL opponents would have picked off. Not even the Steelers' three interceptions, including Keenan Lewis' leaping stab that killed the final Kansas City drive, were enough.

But debate style vs. substance all you want. Bottom line is that the Steelers' 8-3 record is tied for best in the conference with Baltimore, Houston and New England. And their destiny remains in their control, with their five remaining games including two against Cleveland, one against St. Louis.

Rather than agonizing over Sunday night, maybe it's more appropriate to ask this: Why shouldn't the Steelers return to the Super Bowl?

Remember, the three opponents before this were New England, Baltimore and Cincinnati, the class of the rest of the conference, and the Steelers would have swept all three but for that 92-yard drive by Joe Flacco. They solved Tom Brady, outgained the Ravens and turned in a rare 60-minute showing in Cincinnati.

What happened last night doesn't get excused by the rust of a bye week, but neither do the three games before it get erased.

The Steelers aren't where they should be. That's painfully clear yet again. But sitting atop the conference with less than their best should speak volumes about this team's potential.

Listen to how safety Ryan Clark summed this up afterward in a largely satisfied locker room.

"It's just good to keep winning," Clark said. "We put ourselves in a lot of bad situations a lot of weeks, but we keep coming out on top. It's better to make corrections when you have Ws and not Ls. But we also know we have to play better. It seems like, no matter who we play, we're going to make it a close game. I don't know if that's playing down to the competition or what."

He grinned and added, "But I know I like being 8-3."

Sounded like they all did.

"Look, man, we're just trying to knock 'em out any way we can," nose tackle Casey Hampton said. "You know, when we get it all together, it's going to be scary."

Look at the resiliency the Steelers continue to show, and it's easy to believe him.

Did you see Roethlisberger flipping Kansas City linebacker Jovan Belcher with that block?

How about Ryan Mundy's first career interception after Troy Polamalu went down with concussion symptoms?

Or Weslye Saunders' first career touchdown that belied the usual elegance of a tight end?

Or Jason Worilds continuing to be a force in LaMarr Woodley's absence?

Or, best of all, Lewis' climactic pick?

"I knew with the way they lined up, the ball was going to be coming my way," Lewis said. "I just had to make a play."

And he did. That's what winning teams do even when they stink up the joint.

Still not enough?

OK, check out the rest of the AFC: Houston lost quarterback Matt Schaub for the season, then lost replacement Matt Leinart yesterday. New England continues to look very un-genius-like in pass coverage. The Bengals, for all their promise, still have a rookie quarterback in Andy Dalton. That leaves Baltimore, but you know that adage about how it's tough to beat the same team three times.

I'll take these Steelers and Hampton's "scary" prediction by January, thanks.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Mario Lemieux comeback still greatest of all-time

By Tom Thompson
2011-11-26 11:38:00

Mario Lemieux had 690 goals and 1,723 points in 915 career NHL games.(Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Like all hockey fans, I was thrilled by Sidney Crosby's comeback to the NHL. I have witnessed some of the frustrations encountered by world-class athletes as they try to recover from the effects of concussions. They must hurdle many obstacles before they can spy light at the end of the tunnel. In typical Crosby fashion he "shot the lights out" in his return game, registering two goals and two assists, and deserves all the credit he has received.

All of it, that is, until one specific comparison was made. Some commentators compared this comeback to the one made by Mario Lemieux two nights after Christmas in 2000. By any objective standard, there is no comparison. Lemieux's comeback was the most remarkable feat of its kind in my lifetime. All others must play second fiddle.

Crosby is 24 years old. His last game before his injury took place slightly less than 11 months prior to Monday night's game. Although Crosby has had some groin problems in the past, he has suffered no major injuries requiring surgery. The concussion was the first major roadblock in his NHL career.

Lemieux was 35 years old at the time of his comeback. People have a hard time believing me when I point out that more than 44 months elapsed between the time of his "retirement" in April, 1997 and his comeback in December of 2000. Prior to that time, he had played 12 seasons in the NHL. He missed major portions of three seasons with a back injury that required surgery. Unfortunately, infection developed following the surgery that delayed his recovery. He also missed a considerable part of another season undergoing treatment for Hodgkin's disease. His body was ravaged to the point where he sat out the entire 1994-95 season. His first comeback actually took place in the fall of 1995 when he played two more seasons, winning the scoring championship and being named to the first all-star team both years and winning another Hart Trophy as MVP of the league. When he retired in the spring of 1997, it truly looked like the end of the road for Mario. The big guy had squeezed every ounce of performance from his body.

Crosby's comeback was eagerly anticipated by the hockey world. Fans had agonized with him at each stage of his recovery. Debates ensued about the forms of treatment and there were always rumors about the projected date of the comeback as well as any setbacks on the road.

Lemieux's comeback stunned the hockey world. Until the last few days prior to his comeback game, there were not even rumors of what was to take place. He had periodically worked out with the team of which he was now part owner, but few people foresaw the seriousness of his intentions.

Crosby is undoubtedly focused on returning to his position atop the hockey world. Debates concerning his abilities compared to those of such players as Alex Ovechkin can rage long into the night, but at the top of his game, Crosby does not have to take a back seat to any other hockey player. A comeback to any level of status below the top of the hockey mountain will not be judged as successful.

At the time of Lemieux’s comeback, the hockey world realized standing atop the hockey mountain was not a realizable goal for him. Playing at a respectable level where he would not tarnish his previous reputation was ambitious enough. Hockey fans remained nervous throughout his second comeback that the next collision or twist could end his career for good. Over the next five seasons, Mario played just 170 games as he encountered two serious hip injuries before retiring for good in January of 2006 at the age of 40. During this time, he scored a remarkable 229 points and captained Team Canada to a gold medal at the 2002 Olympics where he scored six points in five games.

Go get them, Sidney! The hockey world definitely needs all of its marquee performers going at full throttle. All fans of the game admire your dogged determination in pursuing your comeback. But be fair to Sidney. Let his exploits on the ice rank him with the greatest of all-time. Lemieux performed the greatest comeback of all time. This is not challenged.

Tom Thompson worked as head scout for the Minnesota Wild from 1999-2001 and was promoted to assistant GM in 2002, a post he held until 2010. He has also worked as a scout for the Calgary Flames, where he earned a Stanley Cup ring in 1989. He currently works as a scout for the New York Rangers. He will be writing his Insider Column regularly for throughout this season.

Highlights: Penguins 4, Canadiens 3 (OT)

Saturday, November 26, 2011

MLB's New CBA Is No Help to Small-Market Clubs

Posted Tuesday, November 22, 2011 5:23 PM
By Jonah Keri

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 22: (L-R) Major League Baseball Executive Vice President Rob Manfred, Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig and Major League Baseball Players Association Executive Director Michael Weiner attend a news conference at MLB headquarters on November 22, 2011 in New York City. Selig and Weiner announced a new five-year labor agreement between the MLB and the MLBPA. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

Hey, you know that one sports league that keeps stabbing itself in the eye because the parties involved can't look past their own self-interest? Apparently Major League Baseball got jealous.

The terms of MLB's new collective bargaining agreement came out earlier Tuesday. The biggest CBA change places severe restrictions on teams' ability to spend premium dollars on the amateur draft and international signings. So while the deal's cheerleaders trumpet the 21 years of uninterrupted labor peace that we'll have by the end of the five-year deal, baseball risks harming the game in two major ways:

• Smart teams in non-elite markets could fall further behind.

• Premium young athletes could become more motivated to take up basketball, football, soccer … basically any sport that isn't baseball.

For years, the commissioner's office has fought to institute hard slotting in the amateur draft — having teams spend no more than X for the first pick, Y for the second, and so on. Most teams happily ignored those recommendations, since no real repercussions awaited those who defied the league.

Those that stood to benefit the most from draft aggression were lower-revenue clubs. The Pittsburgh Pirates could never hope to compete on the open free-agent market for Albert Pujols' services, with the asking price likely topping $200 million. But the Bucs could land multiple potential stars in the draft by going over slot to reel in the best prospects. Nine years ago, the then-cheapskate Pirates passed on top prospect B.J. Upton in favor of thriftier choice Bryan Bullington, proudly proclaiming Bullington's future as a potential no. 3 starter in the big leagues — as if getting a mid-rotation starter with the no. 1 overall pick was a good thing. That all changed in later years, with the Pirates spending a team-record $11.9 million on 2010 draft picks, then setting a major league record by dropping $17 million this year, including a combined $13 million on way-over-slot picks Gerrit Cole and Josh Bell. For the first time since Barry Bonds bolted two decades ago, you could start to feel good about the Pirates' future.
If you're a Pirates fan, you should feel a lot worse today. The new CBA outlines penalties for going over slot. They are as follows:

• Any team that goes over total recommended slot spending in any one year's draft by up to 5 percent must pay a 75 percent tax on the overage.

• Any team that goes over total recommended slot spending in any one year's draft by 5 to 10 percent must pay a 75 percent tax on the overage and lose its first-round pick in the following year's draft.

• Any team that goes over total recommended slot spending in any one year's draft by 10 to 15 percent must pay a 100 percent tax on the overage and lose its first- and second-round picks in the following year's draft.

• Any team that goes over total recommended slot spending in any one year's draft by more than 15 percent must pay a 100 percent tax on the overage and lose its first-round picks in the next two drafts.

• Any team that goes over total recommended slot spending in any one year's draft by more than 20 percent must absorb the contracts of A.J. Burnett, John Lackey, and Barry Zito.

Even if that last one isn't true, the rest of these penalties will make it much tougher for small-revenue teams like the Pirates to do what everyone always tells them to do to keep up with the big boys: scout, draft, and develop superior talent. This new rule doesn't just affect one or two teams either. As Baseball America's Jim Callis notes, 20 teams outspent total slot recommendations by 16 percent or more this year, meaning two-thirds of MLB teams would have paid 100 percent overage penalties and forfeited two future first-round picks. Throw in a new provision that prevents teams from offering major league contracts to draftees, and these changes figure to dramatically alter the way teams do business.

But wait, there's more. Spending on international signings is now subject to the same harsh penalties. Effective immediately, every team will have $2.9 million to spend in international bonus money, the first step toward what many in the game feel will eventually result in an international draft, which like the amateur draft will transfer more money from the players to the owners. Let's put the $2.9 million figure in context. Per ESPN's Buster Olney, the Rangers spent $17.6 million on international signings in the past year alone. No team does a better job devoting resources — both financial and intellectual — to international scouting and player development than the Rangers. It's a key advantage, built through years of sweat and brainpower that they hoped to build on as they defend their two straight pennants, while competing against the far richer Yankees and Red Sox. The bulk of that advantage has now been wiped out.

Those effects might seem unfair, but both sides know what they're getting. For team owners, it's a chance to spend less for young talent, and thus put more money into their pockets. The few teams that have traditionally avoided spending over slot in the draft will get an added benefit, with rivals becoming more reluctant to outspend them. The Braves, for instance, have long stuck to MLB's slot recommendations. They haven't suffered any major consequences in loss of talent, because more often than not, they simply outscout the rest of baseball. It's no coincidence that Braves president and former GM John Schuerholz was one of the driving forces in hammering out the new draft arrangement. It's certainly possible that other teams could simply get smarter in their talent acquisition and find good players without spending big bucks, the same way shrewd teams do on the trade and free-agent markets. But this was still a viable lower-cost option for cellar-dwelling teams to catch up to the rest of the league that's now been severely curtailed.

The real blame here lies with the Major League Baseball Players Association. After today's press conference, MLB Network's Tom Verducci asked union head Michael Weiner to name his biggest victories from the CBA negotiations. Weiner noted that more players will now become eligible for arbitration sooner, with the Super 2 threshold rising to 22 percent of third-year players who will now come up for arbitration (it was previously 17 percent). Weiner also cited the change in the draft-pick-compensation structure, which will end the practice of stripping high draft picks from teams that sign free agents, except in the case of elite or near-elite players.

As in any negotiation, you have to give something to get something. But what the union gave affects exactly zero percent of its current members, since amateur players can't join the MLBPA. Somehow the union was able to slash the potential earning power of a whole class of players who lack the protection afforded to all those above them. I'm not a lawyer, but I'm pretty sure in legal terms that qualifies as a whole mess of wrong. Here's hoping some enterprising, young attorney will take up the fight for the many, many high school, college, and international athletes who just got screwed out of a hell of a lot of money.

Of course, those athletes have another alternative: Punt baseball, and go play another sport. Unlike in football or basketball, draftees and international signings in baseball stood to make guaranteed money years before they ever stepped on a major league field. So if an MLB team wanted to persuade a two-sport star to forsake all others in favor of a guaranteed contract and a potential path to the big leagues, that team simply needed to dig into its pockets and make it happen. With that money now restricted, we could see 18-year-old multi-sport stars decide that the long road to the big leagues and the long odds of making it aren't worth giving up other opportunities. The next Grady Sizemore might decide that playing quarterback and being a big man on campus for a powerhouse college is a more attractive path than riding buses all night for Beloit Snappers road trips. At a time when teams are fretting about the overall talent pool and the lack of star players, there's a good chance baseball just made things considerably worse.

The new CBA isn't all bad. An earlier signing deadline for draft picks could get top prospects into the system and on their way to the majors quicker. Realignment will finally result in six divisions with five teams each. The minimum major league salary will rise substantially in the next few years, hitting $500,000 by 2014. Though not everyone will like it, the move toward blood-testing for HGH is one both sides seemed happy to codify. Perhaps best of all, baseball will finally (start to) get its head out of the sand on instant replay, expanding it to include fair/foul plays and plays in which the ball has possibly been trapped by the fielder. It's not a full-on robot-umpire takeover, but it's a good start.
The new CBA does offer some allowances for poorer teams, too. A "competitive balance lottery" kicks in that awards extra draft picks to the lowest-revenue teams in the smallest markets, with the odds of winning one of the six bonus picks after the first round weighted based on lowest winning percentage, and six more bonus picks awarded to leftover teams after the second round. Baseball will also tweak its revenue-sharing system, with the new CBA preventing clubs in the 15 largest markets from receiving revenue-sharing funds by 2016. Most visibly, baseball gets one extra wild-card team per league starting in either 2012 or 2013, thus offering a bit more hope and faith to lesser teams hoping to play into October.

But the new deal, taken as a whole, does more harm than good. The offer to lower-revenue teams likely won't make up for the neutering of draft and international budgets. It won't come close to addressing the gigantic gap between richer and poorer teams' local TV deals, one that's growing rapidly every year. And if fewer available dollars push star athletes away from baseball, that's an inexcusable loss that could have been avoided, if not for the usual bouts of greed.

Baseball can look forward to a full season of games, which is more than the NBA can say right now. Just don't go calling this new agreement a big win for the sport. If you're a baseball fan, you lost a little today. And if you're a fan of a team that's not the Yankees or Red Sox, you lost a lot more.

Jonah Keri's new book, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First, is a national best-seller. Follow him on Twitter at @JonahKeri.

Previously from Jonah Keri:

Mike Matheny's Record Will Be a Product Of Talent, Luck & Definitely Not Mike Matheny
Dan Duquette Has His Hands Full In Baltimore
Here's Why Jonathan Papelbon Isn't Worth $50 Million
Team Continuity Strikes Again with the Minnesota Twins
Cleveland Indians, Worms' No. 1 Enemy
Polarizing Trade For Two Deep Sleepers
Five Tips To Get The Cubs On Track
Canadian Sports Anchor's Kent Brockman Moment
Farewell, Frank: Dodger Faithful Have Reason to Rejoice
Are the Cardinals the Most Unlikely Champions of All Time?

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Evgeni Malkin Would Like a Word With You

One on one with the Penguins’ enigmatic superstar.

By Sean Conboy
Pittsburgh Magazine
December 2011

Evgeni Malkin knew about 10 words in English, and none of them were appearing in Pittsburgh International Airport. As he took off his iPod headphones, the white noise buzzed around him. He was living inside a broken television. Static.

Malkin was 19 years old, 4,500 miles away from home and, theoretically, a missing person. Back in Magnitogorsk, Russia, his face was plastered on the proverbial milk carton. He had been pressured by officials of his hometown team in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League to sign a contract extension despite being drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins the previous year. They played to his heartstrings: family, friends, country. His passport had been confiscated. He was a hockey hostage. Then, one night, the Penguins got a call from Malkin’s agent. The falcon had left the nest.

Websites were rampant with speculation on the whereabouts of a lost national treasure, but Malkin’s dramatic departure was that of a simpler time. He fled throwback style, into the wind. There were no Facebook updates. No phone calls. His childhood friends did not know where he was. He had left his Russian teammates not with a hug, but with a bathroom break.

Two weeks earlier at an airport in Finland, where Metallurg Magnitagorsk was playing in a preseason tournament, Malkin grabbed his hockey-gear bag and a small bag of clothes and disappeared into the night. Malkin was not defecting. He didn’t flee for Coca-Cola and MTV. In Russia, he was already a millionaire and a hero. This wasn’t about green. Or red, white and blue. This was about black and gold.

“I was not scared to come to America,” Malkin remembers. “I was scared what my friends would think of me. I love Russia. It is my country, my home. It was a tough time. But I had a dream, and that was to play for the Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL.”

After hiding out in a Finnish apartment for a few days, Malkin secured a fast-tracked Visa and boarded a plane to the United States. He didn’t smile until he felt the engines tremble. No one stopped the plane. The easy part was over.

Boss Wants to See You

The stillness. That’s what bleary-eyed expats remember when they first arrive in a strange land. The radio chatter in the car transporting Malkin through the winding green aisles of the highway became a sea breeze, a nothing. The jetlag became delirium. Trees and trees and trees and a warm bed. After a while the snaking road was swallowed up by a giant tube. Pale, blinking strobes and Soviet gray walls. And then it happened. Everyone remembers their first time. Malkin’s eyes flicker when he remembers his.

“The lights,” Malkin smiles. “Wow.” They appeared small at first, gold and silver flecks at the end of a kaleidoscope. Then, as the tunnel yawned wider and wider and the car raced through its mouth, the Pittsburgh skyline exploded. Towers levitating on the shoulders of endless bridges. A ghost of the city reflecting in the waters below. “I never been so surprised when I see all the lights,” Malkin says. “So many lights! And the bridges, the most I have ever seen. Downtown looked so amazing. Not bad place to be for a new home, I think.”

In the car, the translator assigned to help Malkin had some news. He spoke in Russian, but it wouldn’t have mattered if it was Mandarin. This was a universal language. After five planes, a safe-house, 4,500 miles and three continents, a warm bed would have to wait. And Malkin couldn’t have been happier about it. “He tell me we’re going to Mario Lemieux’s house for dinner,” Malkin says. “It was so surprising for me—I come first day, and Mario meet me.”

The car drove through the ornate gate of Lemieux’s sprawling Wayne Manor estate. At the top of the winding drive, a silhouette stood in the electric gold of the doorway. Then another appeared. And another.

“Mario’s whole family was there and Crosby, too, and Gonchar, too—all there waiting for me,” Malkin says. “I’m not speaking English, but I’m so excited. Gonch translated for me, and Mario said, ‘Welcome, we’re glad you made it.’”

Malkin’s new boss fired up the grill and emerged from his fabled wine cellar with a few bottles for the special occasion. “I remember we eat steaks and drink good wine,” Malkin laughs. “Very big house. Very good family.”

Gonchar remembers the night fondly. “Mario is a person who does everything in a first-class way,” he says. “Everyone left the house with a warm feeling. What Evgeni went through to get to the United States was not easy for him. I believe it really helped him to see that he was welcome and that people were waiting for him.”

“Big surprise for me,” Malkin beams. “Mario, I love this guy. He’s my hero.”

Malkin in the Middle

Malkin soon became a hero to someone else when he moved into a spare bedroom in Gonchar’s house. Gonchar’s 2-year-old daughter, Natalie, became Malkin’s unlikely study buddy and fellow couch potato. The two became fast friends over cartoons. “I love kids, you know,” Malkin says. “She young—2 years old—I play with her sometimes. We watch TV, and she learn English, and I start, too. She’s funny. She learned a little bit quicker than me.”

“Geno was great with my daughter,” Gonchar recalls. “She was teaching him English. Once in a while, she would make fun of him for not knowing something she knew.”

But because Malkin instantly dominated on the ice in his first year with the Penguins, winning NHL Rookie of the Year honors and helping lead the team to its first playoff appearance in five years, most people didn’t realize how difficult it was for him to adjust to life outside the rink.

“At first, I don’t have car, so Gonch have to drive me everywhere,” Malkin says. “He have to speak for me, translate. It was tough. I come back from practice and stay all day in house, talking to Russian friends on Skype or watching movies.”

Luckily, despite the language barrier, Malkin found solace in the locker room and quickly bonded with his teammates.

“I am lucky I met Fleury, Sid, Staalsy—you know, good guys,”

Malkin says. “Sid always helped me. We talk a lot on the phone, and when I go to Russia, he’s always texting me.”

Special praise was reserved for goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, whom Malkin calls the heart of the locker room.

“Fleury, he’s a funny French guy. He has lots of jokes for guys. Always smiling after a good save. We have a shootout after practice, and when he makes great save, he talks to guys—you know, ‘I best, I best!’”

Geno pauses, laughing without sound, then deadpans, “He’s best.”

Still, there were obstacles. Namely, alarm clocks.

“Evgeni hated to wake up early in the morning,” Gonchar recalls. “For such a young kid, the NHL can be a grind. Sometimes, he’d sleep through it. I had to go in and wake him up more than once, for sure.”

Just like every youth hockey player from Magnitogorsk to the Mon Valley, the Penguins’ young megastar faced that brutally familiar wake-up call. Outside the walls of his warm comforter was the piercing winter air and sleepy drive to practice. The frozen meat locker of Mellon Arena awaited. Shrill whistles. The crackle of ice underfoot. Bag skates, brutality, laughter. That unique mix of excitement and dread they call hockey practice.

Geno, let’s go. It’s time for hockey.

Evgeni signs an autograph for photographer Frank Walsh's sons. "My first globe," he jokes.

Russian Humor

Here’s Geno now in the plush players’ lounge of the CONSOL Energy Center. He’s got a Stanley Cup and a playoff MVP trophy—and the scars to prove it, including an enormous one on his right knee from ACL surgery last season. It’s a long way from the static of Pittsburgh International Airport. The winding green aisles have become familiar, the highways well traveled (“I have navigation, never lost,” Malkin says. “Only one time when visiting the kids in hospital I lost my way.”) Mario’s house is now “Mario’s house,” and Geno’s got a house of his own with a yard and a cat named Dixi. The Mellon Arena’s sparse corridors have been replaced by CONSOL’s carpeted rec rooms, bubble hockey tables and espresso machines.

Much has changed in a few years. The static cloud that once hung above Geno’s head has lifted. He’s talking in English, laughing as he recounts a now infamous story featured in HBO’s “24/7” documentary. Somehow, it’s funnier when Geno tells it—pausing every once in a while to Google-search a word in his mind and emphasizing minor points with giggles like a middle-schooler rhapsodizing a lunch table full of preteens with a tall tale.

“One time I see Flower and Johnny, two goalies, do re-around ... re-arrange of Lovejoy and Letetsu’s room. TV, beds, everything. Out! Put new room around elevator. Hotel people very confused. Very funny joke.”


This is the Geno who’s sometimes hard to see. On camera, he’s shy and intensely earnest. In person, he’s the best kind of adult: a big kid.

“One thing people might not see is how funny he is behind the scenes,” Gonchar says. “He doesn’t say much, but all of a sudden he’ll come from out of nowhere with a joke that cracks everyone up. One thing I’ll always remember about Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals was Geno making fun of Max Talbot for missing the empty net after Max just won us the Cup with two goals.”

On Twitter, which Malkin joined at the start of the season, he responded to an earth-shattering nutritional discovery by asking for verification from his 79,000 followers: “Just read that tomato = fruit? True???”

And when a conversation with Phoenix Coyotes tough-guy Paul Bisonnette, nicknamed Biz Nasty, ended with Bisonnette jokingly telling Malkin he would see him at the All-Star Game, Malkin retorted, in flawless broken English, “Sorry Nasty, you play in rookie game,” then added the follow-up disclaimer: “Russian humor.”

And don’t get Malkin started on the Steelers. He’s a convert, a full-fledged Cope-a-Nut. “I don’t understand all the rules, but I love this game,” he says. “My favorites now are Mike Wallace and Troy Polamalu. I think he’s the best defenseman.”

After Polamalu returned a fumble for a game-breaking touchdown against the Colts early this season, Malkin feverishly sent a tweet to the Flyin’ Hawaiian: “You best!!!!”

Malkin’s comedic stylings may invoke Balky from “Perfect Strangers” or perhaps Steve Martin’s “Saturday Night Live” wild-and-crazy-guys schtick, and maybe the caricature isn’t lost on Geno himself. After all, his Halloween costume this year involved a spread-collar silk shirt, a plume of fake chest hair and an absurdly bushy Doobie Brothers mustache.

Malkin’s hilarious, hirsute costume is a kind of living metaphor for the view many hockey fans have of the mercurial star, and that caricature misses the point entirely. Because underneath the goofy exterior is a man whose bravery is unmatched and whose loyalty to Lemieux and the Penguins organization is limitless. If Malkin has a fault, it’s that he cares too much.

Smiling Like a Butcher’s Dog

Those closest to Geno are happy to see him grinning again. After missing half of last season with a torn ACL and MCL (following a disappointing 2010 campaign), Malkin was devastated.

“First time I didn’t play in playoffs,” he says. “It was hard on me. Sid couldn’t play, I couldn’t play. I talked with Sid, we stay with team always and watch team together.” During a pivotal Game 4 against Tampa Bay, the tension of the moment spilled over when the game went to overtime and snake-bitten sniper James Neal dramatically broke his scoring drought.

“Most times Sid and I watched quiet,” Malkin says. “Of course, when Nealsy scored in overtime we jump around and celebrate.”

Unfortunately, Tampa Bay would fight back to win the series as Malkin watched helplessly from behind the scenes. It’s easy to tell that the early exit still bothers Malkin, who was planning to attempt a gutsy comeback if the Penguins made it to the next round. Those who believe the stereotype that foreign players don’t care as much about the Stanley Cup would do well to spend five minutes with Malkin.

“I want to win more Stanley Cups, not just one,” he says. “Because I read newspaper and sometimes people say if you win one Stanley Cup, you’re lucky. They say maybe we won Game 7 against Detroit because we’re lucky. I need to win again. Second time, more important.”

Gonchar, whose Moscow apartment is on the same floor as Malkin’s, and who trains with him every summer, sees the fire, too. “He’s maturing and feeling a lot more responsibility for the team,” Gonchar says. “This summer, he never missed a workout. You can see he’s really got his mind into it now.”

It’s almost unfathomable to think that Malkin, just 25, has won every major trophy in the NHL, except one: the Hart Memorial Trophy for regular season MVP. But can he regain the goal-scoring form that won him the Art Ross trophy as the league’s scoring champion in 2009? It’s a point of pride for the Penguins organization, which has claimed the trophy a preposterous 13 times in the past 23 seasons.

“Maybe this year I win,” Malkin says sheepishly, looking down and shaking his head. “But if Crosby play, I can’t win. Sid always win.”

There’s the laughter again. Geno disappears into the weight room for more punishment but turns back with a final request.

“Tell fans thank you for supporting Penguins and Steelers,” he says. “And sorry for my English.”

Geno’s come full circle. He’s Pittsburgh through and through. He’s caring to a fault. His gruffness is his charm. He bleeds for the things he loves.

This article appears in the December 2011 issue of Pittsburgh Magazine
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Highlights: Penguins 6, Senators 3

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Crosby sparkles in long-awaited return

By Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports
November 22, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 21: Sidney Crosby(notes) #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates his second goal of the game with Pascal Dupuis(notes) #9 against the New York Islanders during the game at Consol Energy Center on November 21, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Penguins defeated the Islanders 5-0. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH – On the first day of the rest of his career, on his third shift Monday, Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby(notes) skated straight up the center of the ice. He was flying when he got the puck just over the red line, sprinting full speed. Yet it was one of those moments when time becomes elastic, one of those moments …

Crosby said he had “at least a few seconds” to see that the New York Islanders’ defensemen were flat-footed, though it was more like a few split-seconds. Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said “it kind of played out there in slow motion” when Crosby had that “burst of speed.”

“Just to see him get the puck there,” Bylsma said, “I knew immediately their defense was in trouble.”

Crosby crossed the blue line with a man on his back whacking him with a stick. He went wide right, using his left side to hold off another man in his path, protecting the puck, driving to the net, setting up a shot. The Consol Energy Center hushed in anticipation …

It was in this same building just 2½ months ago that Crosby sat on a podium between two concussion experts. One explained how Crosby had damaged the very thing that made him the best hockey player on the planet – the vestibular system in the brain, which integrates sensory information. In other words, the doctor said, Crosby had scrambled the computer that processes space and motion “when you’re in a busy environment, when you’re skating down the ice and the boards are flying by.” The other expert explained how Crosby had lost the ability to know precisely where his hands were in relation to his body. He said Crosby had to rewire his brain.

Now Crosby was back in a busy environment, back with the boards flying by for the first time in 320 days. He hadn’t played since Jan. 5, when he suffered his second blow to the head in a five-day span. He had missed 61 games – 68, including the playoffs.

Yet he held off that defender …

Yet he lifted that puck on his backhand …

Yet he rifled his very first shot into the roof of the net and popped up the goaltender’s water bottle …

Yet he curled into the right-wing corner, leaned back on one skate and pumped both fists as the arena roared …

“[Bleep] yeah!” he screamed.

All it took was 5:24 for Crosby to score yet another memorable goal. There was the Winter Classic Winner in 2008, when the league held its first annual outdoor game and he sealed a shootout victory as snow fell in Buffalo. There was the Golden Goal in 2010, when Team Canada beat the United States at the Vancouver Olympics. And this was the Comeback Goal.

“He certainly showed another knack for coming up big when the spotlight’s on,” Bylsma said.

At least for one game, Crosby picked up right where he left off when he was injured – when he had racked up 32 goals and 66 points halfway through last season, on pace for the best season of his career, and the best season the NHL had seen since the 1990s.

He had two goals and two assists in the Penguins’ 5-0 rout of the Islanders. He was also plus-3, took eight shots and went 14-for-21 on face-offs in 15:54 of ice time. But it wasn’t just the stats.

He took hits and initiated contact, too. He buzzed around down low like he always used to do, battling for pucks in the corners, pouncing on loose pucks around the net. He looked like himself again. As Penguins defenseman Kris Letang(notes) said: “You saw the real Sid tonight.”

“You get the feeling that Sid’s back,” Penguins winger Pascal Dupuis(notes) said, “and he’s back for real.”


The Penguins have seen great comebacks before. Perhaps none was bigger than Mario Lemieux, who came back multiple times – from back surgery, from cancer and from retirement. On Dec. 27, 2000, he came out of retirement, recorded an assist on his first shift and ended up with three points against the Toronto Maple Leafs in a game broadcast across Canada and the United States.

“I remember it,” Crosby said on Monday morning, sitting in the dressing room surrounded by a horde of reporters. “He set the standard pretty high for first shifts in comebacks. So I think it’s pretty hard to match that.”

Yeah, it took Crosby three shifts to score instead of one.

Crosby still followed in Lemieux’s footsteps. Lemieux saw to it himself. When Lemieux returned from back surgery in 1990-91, he was greeted by a sea of “MARIO” signs at the old Igloo. He never forgot it. So when Crosby was cleared to play Sunday, Lemieux, now the team’s chairman, came up with an idea. The Penguins had thousands of signs printed overnight. The words “WELCOME BACK” were in small type, with a Penguins logo over the “O.” The name “SID” was in large type.

As the fans filed into the arena Monday night – past the scalpers asking for twice face value, at least – each one received a sign. They waved them as the teams warmed up to a Sidney Crosby comeback-inspired soundtrack.

Aerosmith: “I’m back in the saddle again. I’m baaack!”
Foo Fighters: “There goes my hero”
AC/DC: “Back in black. Yes, I’m back in black!”

ROOT Sports, which carries Penguins games in Pittsburgh, had a Crosby Cam during warm-ups and a “COUNTDOWN TO COMEBACK” clock in a corner of the screen. CBC prepared to air the game in Canada. Versus prepared to air it in the United States.

Finally, the rink went dark. A Crosby highlight montage played on the scoreboards. The fans were urged to hold up their “SID” signs, and out came Crosby, second-to-last, ahead of only Evgeni Malkin(notes), as always. He skated around with a spotlight literally on him, and when his name was announced as part of the starting lineup, he raised his stick to acknowledge the fans.

“CROS-BY!” they chanted. “CROS-BY!”

“It was amazing,” Crosby said. “I expected people to be loud, but that was far beyond what I expected and pretty amazing and pretty special.”

In Pittsburgh, it was an emotional moment. In places where Crosby is despised – or where people just think he is overexposed – it was a nauseating moment.

But then came the game and a performance on which everyone should be able to agree. On Crosby’s first shift, the Penguins generated scoring chances, Chris Kunitz(notes) hitting the crossbar. On his third, he scored the Comeback Goal and displayed his profane, couldn’t-hold-it-in celebration. “Hopefully everyone wasn’t reading lips at home,” he said with a sheepish smile.

Soon afterward, just as important, he took a hard hit in the corner and a cross-check in the back, drawing a penalty and confirming that, yeah, he was all right.

“To come out of that OK, I think it gives you some reassurance,” he said. “I don’t think I needed it, but it’s always good in this process to get a couple of those out of the way early.”

Before the first period was over, Crosby sent a backhand pass from the left-wing boards to defenseman Brooks Orpik(notes), who one-timed a laser into the upper-left corner of the net. The Pens led, 2-0. Crosby already had two points.

“Amazing,” Penguins general manager Ray Shero said in his private box.

Crosby assisted on the Penguins’ third goal, too, on the power play early in the second.

Then, in the third, the cherry on top.

He fought for the puck in the right-wing corner. He carried it back up the boards. Then he hit the brakes, spun around, drove to the net and slipped another backhand shot past the stunned goalie’s glove. The Pens pulled ahead, 5-0. The loudspeakers thumped.

Eminem: “Guess who’s back? Back again … “


Maybe it was just adrenaline. Maybe it was because Crosby was so pumped to be back and swept up in the moment. Lots of athletes come back from lots of injuries, give us a brief burst of excellence and then hit a wall before gradually returning to form.

And this wasn’t just any injury. This was a concussion, which one of those experts called “a very complicated, convoluted, cryptic thing to go through.” It took 10½ months before Crosby and his doctors felt comfortable and confident enough for him to return. It is reasonable to expect that it will take weeks or months before we really know how well Crosby has recovered.

The biggest fear in all this remains – that a concussion could dim the brightest star in the game just as he was rising to new heights in a career that already included a Stanley Cup, an Olympic gold, an MVP award, a scoring title and a goal-scoring title. One game, no matter how great, does not complete a comeback. This is just the beginning. Crosby is still only 24 years old.

“I think that it’s a relief, but it’s not time to start gliding now,” Crosby said Monday morning. “It’s time to get going.”

Yet look at how he got going Monday night. What’s reasonable does not always apply to Crosby. “He’s a world-class player,” Kunitz said, “so he’s already a head above most guys in the league, anyway.”

The way he played, you can’t help but wonder …

How good can this team be? The Penguins went 34-19-8 in 61 regular-season games without Crosby – and played a chunk of those games without Malkin, too. Now Malkin looks like Malkin again after overcoming shoulder and knee injuries. Letang and Jordan Staal(notes) have reached new levels. Marc-Andre Fleury(notes) has been as good as ever in goal. James Neal(notes) and Steve Sullivan(notes) have been great additions. With a healthy Crosby, the Penguins are the best team in the league.

How quickly can Crosby catch up? Lemieux missed two months of the 1992-93 season while undergoing radiation treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma. When he returned, he was 12 points behind Pat LaFontaine in the NHL scoring race. He ended up winning the scoring title, beating out LaFontaine by 12 points.

No one should compare Crosby’s comeback to Lemieux’s. A concussion is not Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Crosby is not Lemieux.

Yet …

After the game Monday night, a reporter asked Bylsma if Crosby could catch the NHL’s leading scorer, Toronto’s Phil Kessel(notes).

“Um, what’s the race at right now?” Bylsma asked.

Crosby is 25 points behind.

“I’m not going to make any prediction on that,” Bylsma said, smiling. “We’ve got 61 games left, and his pace is pretty good right now.”

It’s crazy. Yet …

You gonna count him out?

Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Sidney Crosby electrifies with four-point return

By Ryan Kennedy
November 21, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 21: Sidney Crosby(notes) #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins takes the ice for warmups against the New York Islanders for the first time since sustaining a concussion on January 5 during the game on November 21, 2011 at CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH - With less than six minutes ticked off the clock in his return to hockey, Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby charged down the right side, fended off New York Islanders defender Andrew MacDonald and roofed a backhand over rookie netminder Anders Nilsson. Welcome to your first NHL start, Anders: They don’t shoot like that in Sweden or the American League. Fact is, most people on Earth don’t shoot like that.

Much like it was when No. 87 hopped onto home ice during the pre-game introductions, the Consol Energy Center was deafening. Stanley Cup-winning loud, even.

But for a city that saw its brightest star felled for nearly a calendar year, it was cathartic. A Penguins team without Sid the Kid? That’s like Pittsburgh with only two rivers. All the waiting, the wondering when indefinite would become day-to-day, when day-to-day would become game-time decision and then re-birth.

The swells of Pittsburgh voices were the confirmation; all was right – for one night at least – in a town that exalts its sports stars like few others.

At certain times in the past year, it was not crazy to wonder whether Crosby would ever return to the NHL. He shifted the debate on concussions and head shots more than Patrice Bergeron, Marc Savard or even Eric Lindros ever could. I’m not saying that’s right – it’s just a fact the debate came to the forefront because the Great Shining Light of a league on the precipice of wide-scale American acceptance and all the green that comes with it was on the shelf for a long, long time.

Most heartening for the home crowd was how natural the return looked. From the very first shift when he won a scrambled faceoff with fellow former teen phenom John Tavares, Crosby was as dangerous as he has ever looked.

“He looked fast, he found players, he created a lot of scoring chances and that’s his job,” said defenseman Kris Letang. “He came in really well. He came back strong and he came back 100 percent. You saw the real Sid tonight.”

The no-look passes clicked. The puck stuck to his stick like a magnet. Most of Crosby’s tricks came with his back to his defenders, as if he was Eddie Van Halen hiding his finger movements on stage so no one could see how he pulled off his guitar solos.

With the Islanders standing in as the Washington Generals, The Kid nabbed the first goal and three more points after that.

“It was exciting, I was anxious, there were a lot of different things going through my mind,” Crosby said. “The main thing was the joy of playing and that’s something I’ve missed for the past 11 months.”

The rust didn’t show to the naked eye, though of course Crosby felt there were foibles, despite a four-point night.

“I felt pretty good, but there were certain areas – pucks in my feet, certain game situations – that you have to get used to reacting to,” he said. “There are still things I need to improve on. I didn’t play a whole lot and still felt it, so I’m going to have to get ready to play a bit more, too.”

Though coach Dan Bylsma had spoken of limiting Crosby’s minutes in his first game back, The Kid saw 15:54 of action, thanks in large part to a plethora of Pittsburgh power plays and tilted ice that saw the young center start (and win) most of his faceoffs in the New York zone. The coach said the offensive zone starts were not his first priority when Crosby went in, though.

“More who he was playing against,” Bylsma said. “However, he was winning a lot of draws and when we could get him in situations to win draws we did do that. He picked up where he left off.”

So Pittsburgh is whole again, as a team and therefore a city. Most importantly, the dressing room had an extra spark before the match.

“Everybody was excited,” Letang said. “Watching him every day in practice you know he wants to get back in the game, but it’s not ready, he’s not 100 percent…tonight is the time he had to show what he’s capable of and he responded very well.”

This is a city that knows success when it sees it and even though Sidney Crosby missed the first 20 games of 2011-12, it wouldn’t be surprising to see his squad make up for those dates in the springtime, when another Cup is in reach.

Ryan Kennedy is THN's associate senior writer and a regular contributor to His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at

Size of stage no match for Sidney Crosby

By Scott Burnside
Cross Checks Blog
November 21, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 21: Sidney Crosby(notes) #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins waves after being selected as number one star of the game at Consol Energy Center on November 21, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Penguins defeated the Islanders 5-0. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

PITTSBURGH -- So, in the end, isn’t that why we love sports?

To see what is possible? Or more to the point, whether the seemingly impossible is possible?

To see what the great can achieve especially when faced with long odds or when the expectations are incredibly high?

Even if you’re not a fan of Sidney Crosby or the Pittsburgh Penguins, even if you loathe him, as fans have always loathed the greats like Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux and Patrick Roy because they happened to play for another team, surely there was a shiver of anticipation at Crosby’s return to the NHL on Monday night after battling through concussion symptoms for more than 10 months.

And when Crosby swept around New York Islanders defenseman Andrew MacDonald just 5:24 into his first game since Jan. 5 and roofed a backhand shot over rookie netminder Anders Nilsson’s shoulder, surely there was a moment of grudging respect, even from those outside the Penguin nation.

By the time Crosby added his first of two assists late in the first period, dishing a delicate backhand pass that Brooks Orpik hammered past Nilsson, was there anyone watching anywhere that didn’t understand that this was going to be one of those rare nights where expectation and anticipation were rewarded in spades?

By the end of it, as Crosby fought off giant Islander defenseman Milan Jurcina for possession of the puck in the Islander zone and then quickly turned to backhand home his second goal early in the third, surely even the most strident anti-Crosby fan had to pause for a moment and say, “Damn, how good a story is that?”

“I don’t really have good words for it,” head coach Dan Bylsma said after Crosby’s four-point performance in the Pens’ 5-0 drubbing of the lowly New York Islanders.

Bylsma doesn’t usually come out to the bench for the warm-ups, but he did Monday night so he could see the crowd’s response to Crosby.

“There was a large part of me that was a spectator and a fan of the game tonight,” Bylsma said.

Pittsburgh forward Matt Cooke merely shook his head as reporters gathered around him in the crowded Penguins locker room after the game.

“Guess he’s ready to go,” he deadpanned.

“It’s Sidney Crosby. I mean, the guy loves the stage and he loves to play,” Cooke said.

Crosby’s performance was eerily reminiscent of Hall of Famer and Pittsburgh owner Lemieux’s return to action back in December 2000. Lemieux had been out of the game for 3 1/2 years, recovering from chronic back problems and Hodgkin’s disease. He started on fire against the Toronto Maple Leafs and began a run for the ages as Lemieux defied his own failing body and collected 76 points in 43 games. He was a beast, a man nearing the end of his career who seemed to rediscover a passion for the game that had dwindled over the years.

He would go on to help Canada win a gold medal at the ’02 Olympics in Salt Lake City to accompany the two Stanley Cups he won as captain of the Penguins.

Crosby, of course, is nowhere near the same point of his career that Lemieux was when he made his emotional return. Yet Crosby shared not just significant time away from the game because of injury, but that uncanny ability to rise to the occasion no matter the size of the stage.

It was Crosby’s goal that gave Canada a gold medal at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, and though the stage Monday was certainly less imposing, this was a night where Crosby could have been excused for having some nerves and could have been happy with just getting through this first game.

But that is not Crosby’s way, and instead he dominated in a way that the great ones always seem to, seizing the moment and turning jittery questions about how he would react to the physicality of NHL play into emphatic answers.

“Just being back out there, I can’t even really describe it,” Crosby said.

“It was exciting. I was anxious. A lot of different things going through my mind,” he said.

After he scored his first goal, Crosby was caught on camera watching the replay and smiling and joking with his teammates.

“Hopefully people weren’t reading my lips at home,” Crosby said.

Not sure if former NHL head coach Marc Crawford, now a national broadcast analyst, was reading Crosby’s lips, but he was reading the center’s expression, and it was one of relief.

“It was almost like he was saying, I’ve still got it,” Crawford told

“He has to leave this game with just a world of confidence.”

Crosby joked Monday morning that he was just hoping to contribute, and that he wasn’t thinking about returning immediately to the player he was at the time of his concussion when he was the NHL’s leading scorer.

But Monday’s performance suggests the space between the uncertainties of Crosby’s career post-concussion and being that top-of-the-line player is much narrower than most believed.

There was a one-timer during a second-period power play that narrowly missed, a close play at the side of the net, the quick passes to find open teammates. He won 14 of 21 faceoffs and was plus-3. Late in the game, Bylsma had Crosby out with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, and the trio came up with three terrific chances on one shift. If there were any shifts that didn’t result in some sort of offensive creativity, there weren’t many.

True, Crosby’s virtuoso performance came against an Islander team that has won just twice in their past 14 outings and may now be the worst team on the circuit. But with Malkin clicking with Steve Sullivan and Neal, and Jordan Staal seeming to have put his own injury woes behind him, this is a Penguin team that looks to be as dangerous as the team that made back-to-back Stanley Cup final appearances in ’08 and ’09, the latter trip resulting in the team’s first Cup since Lemieux was captain in 1992.

“Coming back from being out almost 11 months and he dominates a hockey game like that, it’s pretty special,” linemate Pascal Dupuis said.

“You got a feeling Sid’s back and he’s back for real. He’s got his game back and he means it,” he said.

As the final seconds ticked down, Crosby was on the ice and the fans rose as one to salute him.

No one is suggesting, really, that this performance suggests an assault on the current NHL scoring leaders, whom Crosby has given an 18- to 20-game head start. But would anyone, even those who live to loathe No. 87, be at all surprised if that’s exactly what transpires in the coming months?

Crosby has said that watching Lemieux’s historic comeback as a teenager has always been a special memory for him. Monday’s return against the Islanders will likewise hold a special place for the young man for whom special isn’t just an adjective but seemingly a way of life.

Crosby 'magnifique' right away

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 21: Sidney Crosby(notes) #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins shoot and scores past Anders Nilsson(notes) #45 oft he New York Islanders during the game at Consol Energy Center on November 21, 2011 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

It all came pouring out of Sidney Crosby with one breathtaking rush.

Nearly a full year of doubt and darkness, all the bouncing from doctors to neuropsychologists to chiropractors for answers, all the rumors and whispers, all of it was reduced to this one rush.

This was an enemy he could see.

This he could beat.

The Penguins' captain stormed through center ice, with no trace of fear, no nod to the severe concussion that had kept him from the game he loves for 320 days. He took a lead pass from Pascal Dupuis and, chin up, saw three New York Islanders strung across the blue line. It was one-on-three, essentially.


Oh, yeah.

This was defenseman Zbynek Michalek's view from the Penguins' bench: "You could just see it coming. I knew the defenseman was in trouble because Sid was coming with all that speed."

That's defenseman, in the singular.

Crosby darted to the right to reduce it to one-on-two, and New York defenseman Travis Hamonic then inexplicably failed to slide over for support. So, Crosby zipped to the right of his only obstacle, defenseman Andrew MacDonald, then charged into the slot, lowered the left shoulder and blazed a trademark backhander over the glove of rookie Anders Nilsson.

With that, he spun away from the lighted lamp and let out a primal scream — maybe with an unprintable word in there — and pumped both fists.

"Yeah, I was really excited," Crosby would say later. "Part of waiting to play is that you're also hoping to get that first one. It came pretty early, which was nice."

As for whatever was shouted, he smiled sheepishly: "Hopefully, everybody wasn't reading my lips at home. I couldn't hold that in."

It was vintage Crosby, in style, energy, emotion and, above all, drama.

It came on his first shot, 5:24 into the first period, and it was merely the tip of a mesmerizing four-point masterpiece Monday night in the Penguins' 5-0 pasting of the Islanders, one that left the enthralled 18,571 jammed into Consol Energy Center with a lifetime memory.

Crosby went on to set up a one-timer by defenseman Brooks Orpik and a power-play stuff by center Evgeni Malkin, then twirled another backhander past Nilsson in the third period. On the latter, he spun defenseman Milan Jurcina silly before taking the shot, one of a whopping eight in just 15:54 of ice time. He also won two-thirds of his faceoffs and dished out as many hits — two — as he took.

In other words ...

"Sidney Crosby is back!" Dupuis fairly shouted. "I predicted five goals, but four points isn't too bad."

Another who believed was Jay Caufield, the former Penguins winger who trained Mario Lemieux for his emergence from retirement Dec. 27, 2000.

"Sid will be great, just like Mario was," Caufield said. "It never takes the great ones long."

Crosby was worthy of Lemieux on every level, and there is no higher praise in this town.

Actually, the parallels between this performance and Lemieux's only add to the tale: Lemieux had a similar output of a goal and two assists in a 5-0 victory — same score —over the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Civic Arena. Even this scene felt similar, thanks to Lemieux's idea to give all fans "SID" placards reminiscent of those "MARIO" models held up for No. 66's many comebacks.

And how about Crosby improving to a career plus-66 rating with that first goal?

Or now having 66 career points against the Islanders?

"He set the standard pretty high for comebacks," Crosby said of Lemieux. "It's pretty hard to match that."

This franchise has been blessed beyond words, and not just in Stanley Cups. The talent witnessed on Pittsburgh ice is headed by the greatest player in NHL history, Lemieux, and three others — Jaromir Jagr, Malkin and Crosby — who have combined to win 13 of the past 23 Art Ross Trophies.

We take stuff like that for granted around here.

It's telling that Crosby was wound tightly in the morning. He acknowledged nerves and wore a pained look all through waves and waves of reporters' questions.

"I'm just trying to enjoy being back," he said at one point, and it looked like he was trying very hard.

The look began to change for the mega-decibel pregame ovation. And it went the full mile after that first goal, when he was all teeth on the Penguins' bench. The kid in the Kid was back.

That's part of what makes Crosby who he is: He has performed under a microscope pretty much his whole life, and those who know him will attest that the only place he is truly himself is on a hockey rink.

As Crosby said of his recovery, "I think now's the easy part. Now, you get to play."


Tell it to those three Islanders.

Highlights: Penguins 5, Islanders 0

Monday, November 21, 2011

Crosby’s comeback cause for celebration — and conversation

By Cathal Kelly
The Toronto Star
November 20, 2011

Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby(notes) participates in hockey practice with teamates on Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011 in Pittsburgh. (AP)

On Sunday afternoon, Sidney Crosby let the NHL off the hook.

In a one-sentence release, the Penguins announced that Crosby will return to the lineup on Monday night against the Islanders (7 p.m., CBC). He’s been gone nearly a calendar year — 61 games over two seasons.

Pittsburgh insisted all along that whenever this happened, it was going to be just another day in the hockey schedule. They flinched at the end, making the announcement more than the promised 24 hours ahead of Crosby’s appearance, ensuring that the hockey world could book its pilgrimage in time.

While Crosby was wearing a white “don’t hit me” helmet in practice and complaining of dizziness while watching television, the Penguins understandably did not want to make a big deal out of this.

Now that it’s real, now that he’s ready, it’s going to be a grand occasion. As it should be.

Crosby’s return is cause for celebration for fans, for his team and, most especially, for one of the game’s greatest practitioners.

Losing Crosby at age 24 would have been a sporting tragedy. We avoided that, though we may never know just how close a thing it was.

No one, however, will celebrate half as hard as the league.

There’s the obvious — they’ve built an entire marketing strategy around only two men.

One is in the process of becoming a disaffected journeyman at age 26; the other hasn’t been playing at all.

Now that they have the Crosby half of the equation back in place, perhaps the equally troublesome Alex Ovechkin component will rediscover his vim for competition. Monday night’s reappearance could solve two problems at once.

Without Sherlock to measure himself against, maybe this is what would have happened to Moriarty — a career-threatening depression and a 70-point season in the making.

That’s the NHL’s easier problem. The temptation will be to let the harder one burn off like morning fog.

Now that Crosby’s back, the league can’t be blamed for helping to destroy its most valuable asset.

Now that he’s back, the NHL will never have to admit what this was. It was not just an injury to a star. It was an existential crisis.

As long as Crosby was “in recovery,” a very ugly discussion was put on hold.

Now that he’s back, it never has to happen.

But it should. What would the NHL have done if Crosby had never returned? Or been medically advised to retire? Or had gotten sicker? Or publicly blamed them?

It’s not a morbid exercise to ask those questions now, because as long as he plays, they will never be far from Crosby. Every time he is laid out on the ice from now until he quits, the first thought that will roll through the minds of 20,000 spectators is, “Is this the one?”

The NHL’s lax policy on headshots — changed specifically because of Crosby’s injury — nearly cost them a generational talent. We know now that Crosby should never have come out for the third period at the Winter Classic after being nearly decapitated by Dave Steckel. We know a lot of things now that we didn’t a year ago.

We know that hockey is bigger than any one man, but that in this case, not by a whole hell of a lot. Fans will always follow the game, no matter who’s playing. But love is personal. You fall in love with a player. A lot of people love Crosby, and it was clear that if he had been forced out, they would have turned their anger on the league. That anger was held in abeyance. Now that he’s back, it will dissipate. But it will gather again when the next star is poleaxed and broken. It will be exponentially worse if that player is Crosby.

If Crosby plays another five years and is pushed out by gimpy knees, people will blame luck. If he is ever forced out by head trauma, people will blame the NHL.

Therefore, the NHL might not want to think of this as the end. Better to imagine it as a second chance.

Getting Sidney Crosby back was an important first step — the answer to “When?”

Now there is the far more vexing and ongoing question of how to ensure — as much as that is possible — that this never happens again.