Maybe it was the adrenaline of playing in his first game in 320 days. Maybe it was playing against the struggling Islanders. Maybe it was playing against a 4th string goaltender that had recently been called up from the American Hockey League. Whatever it was, the stars aligned for Sidney Crosby to return to the NHL in a made-for-TV setting. He looked like he hadn’t missed a single day.
Most people thought the true test would come in the following games. How would he play against better competition? How would he play in the second, third, and fourth games back when the adrenaline was gone and the grind started to set in?
That’s when reality sets in. That’s when he doesn’t step on the ice, score four points, and make a mockery of the best league in the world.
Tonight’s 3-2 overtime loss to the St. Louis Blues was the first step for the Penguins playing with Crosby for the rest of the season. On Wednesday night, he played 18:41, had three minor penalties, and finished the game with a plus 1 rating. Not exactly the same storybook comeback game as he had against the Islanders. But then again, most people didn’t expect that on a nightly basis.
The next game for the Penguins is Friday evening against the Senators before they hit the road for a 4-game road trip. By the time the team returns to Pittsburgh for their date against the Boston Bruins on December 5th, we should have a better idea of where Crosby will be for the rest of the season.
Just a hunch, but he’ll probably be pretty good.
Even without Sidney Crosby in the lineup, the Pittsburgh Penguins have been one of the more successful teams in the league this season. With the announcement that Crosby will return the ice on Monday against the Islanders (yes, on Versus), the next challenge for head coach Dan Bylsma will be to get his team to play with the same kind of intensity and desperation they’ve played over the last 11 months.
Who knew that one of the best players in the world returning to the lineup could pose problems.
Bylsma talked about how the Penguins have played with desperation without Crosby. “We believe that’s been a big part of our team, a big part of how we play,” Bylsma said about his team. “We think that’s how we play as a team. I know our players are proud of that. They believe in that. That’s part of what we bring to the rink every day. I think its part of the expectations for the players in that room, from each other. That expectation is going to be there when Sidney Crosby gets back there as well. Are there concerns? As a coach, we don’t want to be in a situation where we just stand around and get caught up in watching Sidney Crosby play. I think have seen him in practice, we’ve seen him do some pretty crazy things and we’ve seen him at a high pace. But I think it’s not going to be the first time we’ve seen him. We do have to engage and we do have to get to our game and we do have to be ready to play like our team can.”
Pittsburgh will need to avoid a possible letdown over the next handful of games. Even though he’ll have plenty of adrenaline flowing through his veins on Monday night, it’s always the second, third, and/or fourth games that reveal rust from a player that has missed an extended period of time. The Penguins will need to play the same brand of hockey that has put them atop of the Eastern Conference until Crosby works himself into game shape. If they can stay the course, they’ll be that much better later in the season.
For the time being, the Penguins plan on bringing Crosby along slowly. The superstar captain has already said he expects to play around 12 minutes in his first game back, but Bylsma was quick to add that any ice time limitations would just be guidelines. Regardless, he’ll be out on the ice with wingers Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis—probably in a third line role. Luckily for the Pens, they’ll still have the likes of Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal to fill the top two center roles for awhile until Crosby fully feels comfortable.
One thing we know is that he’s ready to get back on the ice. Bylsma continued, “The only thing I can really say is that is that I would liken it to the sound you hear in the voice of a player that’s going to go play in their first National Hockey League game,” he said about Crosby’s excitement. “He’s excited. He’s anxious. He’s been wanting to play hockey for a long time.”
Fans are excited as well.