On Monday night, it finally happened.
Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby returned to action 10 months and 16 days after suffering a concussion in a 2010-11 game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. He took the ice as the Penguins played the New York Islanders at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
And what a night it was.
Crosby had four points (two goals and two assists) as the Penguins defeated the Islanders by a score of 5-0. Marc-Andre Fleury posted his 21st career shutout with 29 saves, and key defenseman Zbynek Michalek also made his return to the lineup.
Pittsburgh was swarmed by media, as 250 media credentials were issued for the game. The matchup was broadcast not only on local stations in New York and Pittsburgh, but also nationally on Versus and CBC. The NHL Web site covered Crosby’s return from every angle, including streaming the Penguins’ morning skate and writing a shift-by-shift live blog of his first game.
I got caught up in the action myself, live-blogging the game here at Bleacher Report and enjoying Crosby’s return as a die-hard Penguins fan. But when the final horn sounded and I wrote my last entry on the blog, I have to say I was relieved.
It was a great game, but finally, things would be normal again in the world of Pittsburgh Penguins hockey.
For the first time in over a year, the team is almost fully healthy. Crosby and Michalek are back, and Evgeni Malkin appears to have overcome the knee problems that sidelined him early in the year. Tyler Kennedy is recovered from concussion symptoms.
James Neal is finally getting a chance to play with Crosby after being traded from the Dallas Stars in February; Crosby was on the shelf at the time. Fleury is playing like the franchise goalie he was expected to be when he was drafted in 2003. And a behind-the-scenes look at Dan Bylsma’s pregame speech proves why he is one of the best coaches in the NHL, if not the best.
The Penguins were dominant before Crosby’s return, at one point sitting in first place in the Eastern Conference. When their leader returned, they showed that team chemistry wouldn’t be an issue out of the gate and crushed an Islanders team who was coming off a weekend shutout defeat to the Boston Bruins. It was the type of action Pens fans missed seeing and welcomed back with open arms.
During practices, Bylsma will no longer have to answer questions about how Crosby is progressing and if there is a date for his return. The head coach can focus on getting his team ready for upcoming games and figure out how to best utilize his full lineup.
He can now keep lines together that are producing, such as the Kunitz-Crosby-Dupis and Staal-Kennedy-Cooke lines, rather than filling holes with AHL call-ups who cannot produce on the same levels of their big-league counterparts.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Penguins social media pages were still talking about Crosby’s return, asking fans what they enjoyed most about last night and asking them to describe his comeback in one word.
Last night will be a special memory for Penguins fans, regardless of whether or not they had a ticket to the game. We all saw that Crosby hasn’t missed a step, and we never doubted he would. He is the face of the franchise, and it feels nice to have him back.
However, memories should be just that. They are meant to be put in the back of our minds and brought up months or years from now. When asked about the best moment of the 2011-12 regular season, this is the game my fellow Pens fans and I will point to.
But, we should not lose focus from the task at hand. There are still over 60 games to be played before April and the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs. We will have to get through this regardless of whether Crosby had returned last night.
Tomorrow’s game against the St. Louis Blues will be almost boring compared to Monday’s matchup. The media that surrounded Crosby at his locker room stall will be long gone. The cheers of the crowd may not be as thunderous as they were when he scored the first goal of the game.
There will be no national coverage of the game; just good old (or plain annoying, depending on your view) Bob Errey and Paul Steigerwald calling the action.
And you know what?
I’ll take it.
Even though I’ll miss the game because I’ll be at an AHL game, it’ll be nice to just keep up with a Penguins game and not worry about Crosby or when we’ll get our prospects back from call-ups.
While nothing can top the excitement of last night, there is a long way to go, and who knows what else will happen as the season wears on?
It will be nice to officially put Crosby-Mania behind us and get on with the season.
It’s a great day for hockey, indeed.