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Crosby sparkles in season debut

- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 22, 2011

PITTSBURGH (AP) - Sidney Crosby split a pair of defenders, worked the puck to his backhand and let it fly.

New York Islanders goaltender Anders Nilsson never had a chance.

Welcome back, Sid the Kid.

The Pittsburgh Penguins superstar capped his 10-month comeback from concussion-like symptoms in thrilling fashion, scoring a pair of goals to go with two assists in a 5-0 victory on Monday.

It was a storybook end to Crosby's frustratingly methodical return, one marked by numerous setbacks, rumors and questions about whether the 24-year-old former MVP would regain the form that's made him one of the league's most popular players.

The early returns were a resounding yes.

Skating onto the ice to chants of "Crosby! Crosby!" the Penguins captain wasted little time showing he was back for good.

Pittsburgh nearly scored on his first shift and he made his third one count, taking a pass from linemate Pascal Dupuis before racing through the New York defense and zeroing in on Nilsson. The gloveside backhand was good for a moment that was nearly a year in the making.

Crosby thrust his arms to the sky in triumph, letting out a guttural scream as crowd waved "Sid!" signs.

He did it again near the end of the first period, feeding Brooks Orpik on a pass to the point that Orpik turned into his second goal of the season.

It was the kind of brilliant performance reminiscent of Crosby's idol, Hall of Famer and current Penguins owner Mario Lemieux.

Super Mario notched a goal and two assists in his return from retirement in 2000.

Crosby said early Monday it'd be hard to match the moment.

It was. And Crosby may have topped it anyway.

The scintillating play was validation for Crosby, who 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 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, Crosby 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. "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.

Even he wasn't sure how he'd react.

"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."

Things certainly looked that way, with Crosby taking a shot from New York's Travis Hamonic on a Pittsburgh power play. Hamonic checked Crosby cleanly to the ice. In a flash he was back on his feet allowing the Penguins _ and hockey _ to exhale.

Crosby's return produced 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, it understood things change the moment 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."

Even if they're not quite certain how it's going to look, not even to coach Dan Bylsma.

Though the Penguins have upgraded the offense since Crosby went out last January, trading for James Neal and signing Steve Sullivan, Crosby was paired with Dupuis and Chris Kunitz in his return because of a certain comfort level obtained through years of playing together.

"You just hope you don't mess up for him," Kunitz joked.

Hardly.

Crosby played with the kind of peerless ferocity that's become his trademark, the kind his teammates have seen enough of since training camp began to think the road back to spectacular play for their leader will be a short one.

"It's not going to be easy but who knows, he can make it look easy," Staal said. "You can't really do it unless you go through it, but he's talented enough that he can do some great things."

And do them in bunches. Crosby was on his way to capturing his second MVP award when he was injured.

It all changed on Jan. 6 when he was diagnosed with concussion-like symptoms that he later described as "fogginess."

He unwittingly became a case study for the effects of head shots on the game and led the NHL to crack down on such plays.

If it helps make the sport he loves safer, Crosby is all for it. That's not why he came back, however. He wanted to play, not make a statement.

"I've been working hard the last couple months to make sure when it's time to come back, I'm ready," Crosby said. "Do I expect to be where I was in January last year? Probably not, but I expect to contribute."

Even if his teammates and the entire hockey world held their breath the first time he got knocked around.

"That's just normal to be like that," Neal said. "The first hit is always like that. Hopefully he's good to go and I'm sure he will be. He's so quick and so fast and agile it's tough to hit him."

Yet Crosby knows he will get hit again. He welcomes it. He doesn't want to get treated as if he's in bubble wrap. He just wants to get after it.

"It's a relief to be back but it's not time to start gliding now," Crosby said. "It's time to get going."

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