Pittsburgh Penguin captain and star player Sidney Crosby is scheduled to make his first start in 40 games this Thursday as the Pens take on the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. It is his second return from injury this season, but this time will be the last.
Crosby has arguably been the game’s best player since he broke into the league as the No. 1 overall pick in 2005. Since then he has amassed dozens of awards and records—everything from Stanley Cups to Olympic gold medals.
However, it has been a long and stressful career that has been unfortunately wrought with injuries.
Concussions, neck problems, bruised knees and headaches make up a list that has made his presence on the ice nothing more than brief glimpses scattered over the past year.
This return, however, will mark the beginning of the second half of Crosby’s career, where he can finally show the Hall of Fame quality he is. Here are five reasons this will happen.
Crosby’s absence from the game has been a dark hole for all fans of the sport, but if we are to find a silver lining it would be in the emergence of Evgeni Malkin.
Malkin has put together a career year and is the front-runner for the Hart Memorial Trophy. Leading the league in points with 84 and in the top five in both goals and assists, Malkin has carried the Pens in Crosby’s absence, keeping them afloat in a very strong Eastern Conference.
However, what Malkin becoming “the guy” on the team does is allow Crosby to ease himself back into the game.
Every other time Crosby returned from injury, he attempted to go from being sidelined for months to the kind of player he was before he was out. He wanted felt he needed to make the team his own, by taking the burden on his shoulders of having to make the tough plays and put himself in tight spots.
The Penguins have actually been fine without Crosby there all because of Malkin’s play. When Crosby does come back, he won’t need to force himself to step up and push beyond his limits to help the team. He could take it easy and be more of a facilitator of the puck, keeping himself out of harm’s way.
Between the time Crosby last played for an extended amount of time and when he makes his return on Thursday, the NHL took a huge leap forward and asked an old player for help.
Brendan Shanahan has always had player safety in mind dating back to when he was a member of the competition committee that made massive overhauls to the rules during the lockout. Now he is the head of it all as the most hated man in the sport taking on the role of being the judge of supplemental discipline for illegal play.
From day one he stressed the importance of making the game a safer one for its employees.
"It started with acknowledging that what supplemental discipline is really about is player safety. That led to discussion about turning this into an entire department dedicated to player safety. Supplemental discipline will just be part of it," Shanahan said.
The biggest change that he has enacted thus far is the well received notion that all disciplinary rulings will be accompanied by video that shows the illegal play and goes through painstaking detail in explanation of the offense. In an effort to be “very transparent," Shanahan has made this available to the players, clubs and the fans.
The sport will never be fully safe and every time Crosby steps out on the ice, he takes the risk of getting hit hard enough to knock him right back out. However, with Shanahan now policing the game, that kind of contact will be slightly lessened upon Crosby’s return.
When Crosby returned to the ice earlier this season against the New York Islanders, he looked rejuvenated as he had two goals and two assists in his first match.
However, by the time he was ruled out again, his play had dropped off slightly and he would not score a goal in the next seven games. This showed that he had a fluke of a first game against a poor team and was really not back to 100 percent.
This time Crosby is taking no chances it setting back himself back by prematurely getting on the ice.
Injured back on Dec. 5, he was declared fully healed back in late January and even started to do some light skating before and after practices.
All through February he worked to get himself back into shape, but doctors were as cautious as ever as not to risk clearing him too early. With the Penguins performing well without him, the team felt it best to resist the temptation to throw him out there.
Even Crosby himself was on board with the idea. Thought ruled clear for contact earlier last week, Crosby decided it would be best to take a few more days off than to have his return against the hard hitting Bruins on Sunday.
It is always tough to tell an athlete to rest and heal. Perhaps it is the competitor in them or the romantic notion of victory through pain, but Crosby has finally realized the absurdity of such delusions.
On Thursday, for the first time in more than a year, Crosby will skate completely healthy and will continue to do so for the remainder of the year.
The sport is not the same as when Crosby left it. Beyond just the institutionalized mandates that I spoke about earlier in regards to Shanahan, the culture of game has changed.
Three weeks ago, Sports Illustrated published a piece written by Karen S. Schneider, now a hockey mom, ushering her son between rinks. It is a tearful account of the fragility of men and how the expected consequences of young men and women skating full speed into one another can peek its ugly head out every once in a while and open our eyes to the danger of the sport.
Schneider's son’s friend was hit from behind, fell into the boards and is now paralyzed.
These instances of the extreme nature of the game have not changed over the 100-plus years the sport has been played, but the way we view it has.
Slowly, more people are looking at Schneider as the level-headed wisdom that we should follow. This seven-page spread a decade ago would have been laughed off as hippie nonsense looking to eradicate the pureness of competition has become widespread public opinion.
Crosby has not been out of the game all that long, but there has never been such a cultural shift in sports as what has happened in his absence. Between the NHL, NFL and even the disillusionment of boxing, the world is no longer inclined to greet the barbaric acts of athletes the way the gladiators earned the respect of Rome.
The days of ultra-violence are in the past, meaning safer and longer careers for Crosby and all our beloved athletes.
Crosby, inadvertently, has no one to blame for his injuries besides himself. Since he was a youth player he has always been the best player on the ice and countless coaches and players have tried to make the point that he is human by laying him flat on the ice.
No one can skate with him. No one can outshoot him. No one can outmaneuver him. All they could ever do was try and take him out of the game before he hurt their team.
Some, I am sure, try to hit him out of frustration, others were probably order to by senile coaches, though all have purely done it out of an immense amount of respect for his skill. However, once he reached the NHL, the players became bigger, stronger, faster and the hits harder.
It was a recipe for disaster as even at this level of the game, the opposition felt some egotistical need to prove themselves better, by limiting his ability to function as a human being.
All it has done, though, has hurt the players themselves. No one is talking about the player that took Crosby out the first time as some vanquishing hero who was able to stop the game’s greatest talent. No one looks at the guy who took out his knee as some sort of tough guy to be feared an respected.
These two, and all of those that go after Crosby with something to prove, are dopes and the fans have treated them as such.
Crosby’s return needs to be clapped on by more than just the Penguin fans. If his first game is really at MSG, the entire New York crowd needs to stand and give their applause along with the Rangers themselves.
Whether the league’s players like it or not, Crosby is the face of the league. No one has been talked about more than Sidney Crosby in the last year and he has barely played.
The NHL is making a slow comeback into the mainstream sports world. With deals on the new NBC Sports Network, the huge hit of the Winter Classic and general growing interest from casual fans, the league needs a face more than ever to keep it rolling.
The players would do themselves a service if they made sure that faced actually stayed on the ice.
Even in his short career, Sidney Crosby has accomplished what most hope to through 20 seasons. He came into the league with the expectations of being a legend and still can reach that height. However, he must stay healthy first and foremost.
It is finally time for him to make sure that happens.
Do you think we have Crosby back for the long haul?
As always, please leave your comments below, and thanks for reading!
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