- Associated Press - Monday, November 21, 2011

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Sidney Crosby never doubted he’d play hockey again. Never wavered as the months passed and his concussion-like symptoms stuck around. Never wondered if maybe he’d be better off hanging up his skates before his 25th birthday rather than risk the type of injury that jeopardizes more than a career.

There’s no healing from the kind of shots Crosby took in back-to-back games last January. There’s only dealing with a new normal.

Crosby spent nearly a year methodically, painstakingly going through the checklist, enduring test after test and blocking out rumor after rumor that he was done.

Sitting in his locker on Monday morning, the start of his seventh season finally at hand, the 24-year-old smiled in a way he hadn’t in a long, long time.

“I think now’s the easy part, now you get to play,” Crosby said before the Penguins took on the New York Islanders, his first game since Jan. 5.

“When you’re getting ready, that’s the tough part, practicing and going through each of those steps, trying to get through each stage. That’s really all the hard work. Now you’ve just got to go out and do it.”

How, exactly, he’ll do it remains to be seen.

Though Crosby has been cleared for contact since Oct. 13, he understands there’s a major difference between hitting in practice and hitting in a game.

How will he react? Even he’s not sure.

“I think that anyone who has gone through this that would be lying if they said they weren’t anxious to get those first couple hits in, whether it’s giving it or taking it,” Crosby said. “After that it’s back to normal.”

The Penguins _ and hockey _ hopes.

Crosby’s return produces the kind of buzz normally reserved for a Stanley Cup final. The team issued more than 250 media credentials _ about four times the usual number for a late-November game _ and upper concourse seats were being scalped for $275 two hours before the puck dropped.

Though Pittsburgh has gotten along just fine this season without its captain, entering Monday night tied with Philadelphia atop the Atlantic Division, they understand things change the moment Crosby’s iconic No. 87 slides off the bench and onto the ice.

In the span of a day, the Penguins went from Cup contenders to Cup favorites.

“With or without Sid we wanted to win every night and we had a chance to win every night,” center Jordan Staal said. “Obviously it’s going to be different with him going back and everyone fitting in and having the pieces together … we know what we have here.”

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