PITTSBURGH – With less than six minutes ticked off the clock in his return to hockey, Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby charged down the right side, fended off New York Islanders defender Andrew MacDonald and roofed a backhand over rookie netminder Anders Nilsson. Welcome to your first NHL start, Anders: They don’t shoot like that in Sweden or the American League. Fact is, most people on Earth don’t shoot like that.
Much like it was when No. 87 hopped onto home ice during the pre-game introductions, the Consol Energy Center was deafening. Stanley Cup-winning loud, even.
But for a city that saw its brightest star felled for nearly a calendar year, it was cathartic. A Penguins team without Sid the Kid? That’s like Pittsburgh with only two rivers. All the waiting, the wondering when indefinite would become day-to-day, when day-to-day would become game-time decision and then re-birth.
The swells of Pittsburgh voices were the confirmation; all was right – for one night at least – in a town that exalts its sports stars like few others.
At certain times in the past year, it was not crazy to wonder whether Crosby would ever return to the NHL. He shifted the debate on concussions and head shots more than Patrice Bergeron, Marc Savard or even Eric Lindros ever could. I’m not saying that’s right – it’s just a fact the debate came to the forefront because the Great Shining Light of a league on the precipice of wide-scale American acceptance and all the green that comes with it was on the shelf for a long, long time.
Most heartening for the home crowd was how natural the return looked. From the very first shift when he won a scrambled faceoff with fellow former teen phenom John Tavares, Crosby was as dangerous as he has ever looked.
“He looked fast, he found players, he created a lot of scoring chances and that’s his job,” said defenseman Kris Letang. “He came in really well. He came back strong and he came back 100 percent. You saw the real Sid tonight.”
The no-look passes clicked. The puck stuck to his stick like a magnet. Most of Crosby’s tricks came with his back to his defenders, as if he was Eddie Van Halen hiding his finger movements on stage so no one could see how he pulled off his guitar solos.
With the Islanders standing in as the Washington Generals, The Kid nabbed the first goal and three more points after that.
“It was exciting, I was anxious, there were a lot of different things going through my mind,” Crosby said. “The main thing was the joy of playing and that’s something I’ve missed for the past 11 months.”
The rust didn’t show to the naked eye, though of course Crosby felt there were foibles, despite a four-point night.
“I felt pretty good, but there were certain areas – pucks in my feet, certain game situations – that you have to get used to reacting to,” he said. “There are still things I need to improve on. I didn’t play a whole lot and still felt it, so I’m going to have to get ready to play a bit more, too.”
Though coach Dan Bylsma had spoken of limiting Crosby’s minutes in his first game back, The Kid saw 15:54 of action, thanks in large part to a plethora of Pittsburgh power plays and tilted ice that saw the young center start (and win) most of his faceoffs in the New York zone. The coach said the offensive zone starts were not his first priority when Crosby went in, though.
“More who he was playing against,” Bylsma said. “However, he was winning a lot of draws and when we could get him in situations to win draws we did do that. He picked up where he left off.”
So Pittsburgh is whole again, as a team and therefore a city. Most importantly, the dressing room had an extra spark before the match.
“Everybody was excited,” Letang said. “Watching him every day in practice you know he wants to get back in the game, but it’s not ready, he’s not 100 percent…tonight is the time he had to show what he’s capable of and he responded very well.”
This is a city that knows success when it sees it and even though Sidney Crosby missed the first 20 games of 2011-12, it wouldn’t be surprising to see his squad make up for those dates in the springtime, when another Cup is in reach.
Ryan Kennedy is THN’s associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.