Sidney Crosby made a dazzling and triumphant return to hockey on Monday that was reminiscent of Mario Lemieux’s magnificent comeback game 11 years ago.
Sid the Kid scored twice and helped set up two other goals in the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-0 victory over the struggling New York Islanders before an energetic capacity crowd of 18,571 at the Consol Energy Center.
When Lemieux ended a 3½-season retirement because of chronic back woes and a successful fight against Hodgkin’s disease, he, too, returned in grand style with a goal and two assists on Dec. 27, 2000.
For Crosby, the opponent will not be the lowly Islanders with a rookie goaltender Anders Nilsson making his first NHL start every night, but the Penguins captain had a smooth restart to his career after a 10½-month absence because of a concussion.
Crosby fired eight shots on goal, played 21 shifts and 15 minutes and 54 seconds in his first game since being knocked out of the game with two headshots in games on Jan. 1 by then Washington Capitals forward David Steckel and four nights later by Tampa Bay Lightning defenceman Victor Hedman.
Crosby's four-point beginning had hockey fans wondering whether he could possibly win his second Art Ross Trophy as the league scoring champ. He only has to look at his owner for inspiration.
In 1992-93, when Lemieux’s season was interrupted to undergo cancer treatment, No. 66 still managed to win the scoring title with an amazing 69 goals and 160 points in only 60 games.
If Crosby can stay healthy, he could play in a maximum 62 games. But league-leader Phil Kessel built up a 29-point lead before Crosby took his first shift on Monday.
Still, this was another memorable night in Crosby’s career that has seen him win a world junior title, an NHL scoring championship, an NHL MVP honour, a Stanley Cup and score the gold-medal clinching goal for the 2010 Canadian men’s Olympic hockey team.
Crosby was cleared Sunday by the concussion doctors that have been treating him. He made an immediate impact on his first shift. He and linemates Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis buzzed around the Islanders goal. They had three scoring chances on that initial shift, including a Crosby pass to Kunitz, whose shot clanked off the crossbar.
Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma wasn’t kidding when he said Crosby was the best player in practice since he joined his teammates at the beginning of training camp.
Ever since the Penguins announced on Sunday afternoon that Crosby would make his return to action against the Islanders, the buzz in Steeltown was omnipresent. Crosby answered questions in two separate scrums at his dressing room stall on Monday morning and then made a return to the game that was worth remembering.
He was anxious to take that first hit, which although mild was delivered by Islanders defenceman Travis Hamonic in the game’s opening seconds.
On Crosby’s third shift of the game, he employed his dangerous backhand off the rush for his first goal, 5:24 into his season. Late in the opening period, he shook off Hamonic to find Penguins defenceman Brooks Orpik at the blue-line. His blast made it 2-0.
Crosby recorded his third point with the second assist on a power-play goal from Evgeni Malkin early in the middle period, and fired in a backhand from a bad angle that deflected off Islanders blue-liner Steve Staios early in the third period. This was just the third time that Crosby, Malkin and Jordan Staal played in the same game for the Penguins in the past 103 games. The three centres have been plagued by injuries for the past 14 months.
In 333 games together, the Penguins have now gone 197-109-27. Lost in Crosby’s return was the play of Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury. He earned his second shutout of the season and 21st of his career.